Back to class from A - Z at school store Shop supplies students, teachers

August 22, 1993|By Frank Lync | Frank Lync,h Staff Writer

Dwight Honecker is a teacher's pet. He is an instructor's dream, eager to please, he works hard to make them happy and, at the same time, to make money for his Harford school supply business.

For the past 10 years the 32-year-old owner of Professor Bear's Country School Store in Fallston has provided teachers and their students with everything from A to Z.

His catalog, containing more than 300 pages and listing thousands of items, begins with A+ Teacher Notebooks and ends with Zoo Snap Walls, a large, brightly colored plastic

variation of a building block where students can encase themselves in a variety of structures.

The two-level showroom, on Route 1 near Reckord Road, is crammed with items to meet the needs of teachers and students in Harford and surrounding counties.

"We try to stock an inventory that allows our retail customers to find everything they need, especially this time of the year," said Mr. Honecker, who employs 11 workers. "Students, or rather parents, panic the first day of school when teachers issue a list of material that each student is expected to have during the year."

Specialty items

He concedes that much of the material can be found at places such as Woolworth's, Kmart and Price Club. "Pencils, paper, rulers and notebooks are readily available but this store provides specialty items not found at those other retailers," he said. "We are truly a one-stop shopping location."

Some of the items offered at Professor Bear's are teaching material for early childhood development, language art and reading, mathematics, science and social studies.

While walk-in trade provides 30 percent of his business, Mr. Honecker says it is the catalog portion that spells s-u-c-c-e-s-s for Professor Bear's. "Better than 50 percent of our business comes from catalog sales," he said. "Our mailing list is well over 20,000."

Additionally, the company serves more than 1,000 accounts that include public school systems, private schools and day care centers throughout Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

"We just recently outfitted two day care centers," Mr. Honecker said. "We not only deliver the furniture, but we also assemble everything. I see that as our obligation to the customer."

Priscilla Sparks, director of Mother's Choice Day Care Center on Moores Mill Road, bought all of the center's audiovisual equipment from Mr. Honecker and is happy with the service.

"He [Mr. Honecker] was most helpful, not only in helping us select the equipment, but also making prompt delivery," Mrs. Sparks said. She added that he also gave instruction on proper use of the equipment.

'Pencils to furniture'

Teri Remesch, director of Kiddie Academy Day Care Center in Kingsville, echoed Mrs. Sparks' comments and added: "We purchased everything from pencils to furniture from Professor Bear's. I cannot say enough good things about how helpful he [Mr. Honecker] was."

Customer service gets top priority from Mr. Honecker. "It has been No. 1 on my list since I opened for business in July 1983," he said. "I firmly believe that is the main reason for our success.

"I don't ever want to lose touch with the customers. That's what has happened with some in the industry. I know that because I've managed to pick up many of their former customers."

Mr. Honecker, a graduate of John Carroll, Harford Community College and Towson State University, laughed when asked when he got the idea to open this type of business. "You probably won't believe this but the idea came as a result of a childhood experience," he said.

He explained that his family is from Buffalo, N.Y., and that his mother is a teacher. Each year she would take him with her to a teachers supply store, aptly named Teacher's Pet, while she bought materials.

This annual trek continued even after the family moved first to Michigan, and then to Maryland. "We'd visit relatives in Buffalo every summer and my mother would go to the store, and I went along," he said.

Developed a plan

"I was fascinated by all the products available to teachers but what struck me as odd was the fact that the store was not open to the public. I never forgot that and when I decided to enter the business I researched that avenue."

With the help of a business consultant, Mr. Honecker developed a plan for such a store. With his mother's encouragement and financial assistance, he opened for business.

Although reluctant to discuss gross sales figures, he said that his initial investment loan of $100,000 has been paid back and that business had grown about 15 percent annually until last year. "It was just a bad year economically," explained the father of two.

'Surrounded by education'

With the help of his mother, Mary Jane, a reading specialist at Churchville Elementary School, and his wife, Karen, a guidance counselor at Magnolia Middle School, Mr. Honecker manages to stay on top of the needs in education.

"Maybe its because I've been surrounded by education all my life, but I'm real comfortable with the business," he said. "There hasn't been a day over the past decade that I haven't looked forward to coming to work. If, or when, that day arrives, I'll put the business up for sale."

In the meantime, he is formulating a plan for the next 10 years. He'd like to expand his operation from the current 3,500 square feet to 20,000 square feet.

He likes his present location but said such an expansion may require a move.

Mr. Honecker sees more business developing within the day care industry and from the growing number of home schoolers -- parents who teach their children at home.

"I'm told that Harford County alone has about 2,000 home schoolers," he said.

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