An Open secret: Schenectady landmark Open Door Bookstore is about more than just books

Open Door Bookstore owner Janet Hutchison has operated the downtown Schenectady landmark since 1992.
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Open Door Bookstore owner Janet Hutchison has operated the downtown Schenectady landmark since 1992.

SCHENECTADY — In 2013, Janet Hutchison told her loyal customers that when the right person came along, The Open Door Bookstore and Gift Gallery was for sale.

“Yes — and I’m still thinking about it. And it’s still something I would like to do,” said Hutchison, who along with her husband, John, has owned and operated the downtown Schenectady landmark since 1992. “We’ve reached a certain age, we had back in 2013, but we’re not going to sell the store to just anybody. It has to be someone who absolutely loves the store as much as we do. It has to be a labor of love.”

This year The Open Door, located at the corner of Franklin Street and the Jay Street pedestrian walkway, is celebrating 50 years in the business. Betty Fleming opened the store in 1971, and around that same time Hutchison was just starting a job in the children’s room at the nearby Schenectady County Public Library.

“When Betty first opened up, it was a tiny children’s bookstore, and she was always over at the county library in the children’s room researching what books she wanted to buy,” remembered Hutchison. “I would see her sitting in the room poring over all these children books, and I finally went over and asked her what she was doing. I wanted to know what she was up to. Was she taking a class in children’s literature or what?”

That meeting led Hutchison to accept a job offer from Fleming in 1983, and before long she was managing the store for the owner, whose husband, an engineer at General Electric, had taken a position at Princeton University.

“Betty ended up managing the store from a long distance and at some point, I think she was in her 60s, she was letting me manage the store,” said Hutchison. “Eventually she told me that she had decided to put the store up for sale, and John and I said, ‘Great.’ We were very interested.”

So in 1992, Hutchison and her husband, who she says heartily endorsed the idea, became bookstore owners, a business opportunity she never really thought much about earlier in life.

“I started out as a music major, changed to history and for a while I thought I would teach,” said Hutchison, who grew up in San Bernardino, California, and got her undergrad degree from Pomona College in Claremont, California. “But eventually I changed my mind and went into this library intern program at Syracuse University. They paid for your schooling as long as you worked for a public library and took your classes at night.”

When John Hutchison, whom Janet met at Pomona College, landed a position with General Electric, the young woman from Southern California would become a permanent resident of the great Northeast.

“When we moved to Schenectady I had already spent two horrible winters in Syracuse,” said Hutchison, laughing. “Then everybody was telling us how the winters aren’t nearly as bad in Schenectady as they are in Syracuse. I was told it doesn’t snow nearly as much here as in Syracuse. But the year we moved here it was a horrible winter.”

Bumpy ride

Hutchison has survived the cold weather and snowfall just fine, and her business has also endured some hard times. With many shoppers opting for suburban malls instead of the downtown shopping district, and with the increase in large chain stores, Hutchison’s first decade running the store on her own was a tough one. She met things head-on, joining groups and taking a lead role in entities such as the Jay Street Merchants Association, the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation, Metroplex and the Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce.

“I was always sold on closing down Jay Street, but we had to live through the street closing twice, the second time when they renovated it,” said Hutchison. “I also knew that a viable business downtown couldn’t survive without the surrounding environment being a good one, so you dig in, you put your head down and go to work. It was terrible when the Carl Company closed, but then we got Proctors back, thank God, and now we have a nice assortment of stores on Jay Street and wonderful restaurants in downtown Schenectady. We’ve come a long way.”

Then came COVID-19.
“We found out just how incredible the support was that we were getting from our customers,” said Hutchison. “They were very, very loyal. When we had to close our doors for three months, our customers just shifted to our website and ordered books like crazy. We had a curbside service, and fortunately being on the corner where we are people could pull up right close to the door and we’d run out and give them their books. We had people calling up and telling us, ‘I want to get my books from you.’ Having people be loyal like that was just wonderful.”

Extra touches

One of the ways Hutchison and The Open Door earned that kind of loyalty from their customers was to host a series of special events. One aspect of going above and beyond included book-signings by local authors, some of them the biggest names in the business, such as “Wicked” author Gregory Maguire and Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy, both Albany natives.

“We’ve had some wonderful author visits, but the two that stick out are William Kennedy and Gregory Maguire,” said Hutchison. “Those were very exciting days, and we’ve had Gregory Maguire here several times. Those were exciting events, and our customers always seem to appreciate them.”

There were also special events connected to the release of the Harry Potter books.

“That was a whole phenomenon in itself,” Hutchison said of author J.K. Rowling’s huge success. “They sent a lot of promotional material to us and we jumped on that bandwagon early. We would have a ‘Harry Potter’ event with our staff in costumes. We had events with Bowtie Cinema and Proctors connected to ‘Harry Potter.’ That was probably the biggest buzz we ever felt at the store.”

Along with big names such as Kennedy and Maguire, Hutchison always reached out to local authors to offer them opportunities to sign their books. Paul O’Brien, a teacher at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons for more than four decades, started writing self-published, memoir-style books soon after he retired in 2015. He’ll be signing his fifth book, “Onward,” on Dec. 4 at The Open Door.

“She really does a nice job of promoting your book and she’s always great at organizing your event,” said O’Brien, who grew up just outside Troy and went to Catholic Central High School. “I’d have ‘Morning Edition’ on in my car, and there I am listening to NPR and I hear an add for The Open Door, and they mention my book. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s me.’ She does a great job of getting the word out.”

‘Heart of downtown’

O’Brien says he was a fan of The Open Door long before he started writing books and looking for places to sell them.

“To me it’s the heart of downtown,” he said. “It’s been a very significant part of my life in Schenectady. In my new book I have four or five pages devoted to just visiting The Open Door. It’s been like a second home for me and my wife.”

Schenectady native Vicki Hoshko has worked at The Open Door as a part-time employee for 40 years.

“I think people love the store, and I love the store or I wouldn’t have stayed there so long,” said Hoshko. “People love what the store sells and they love the comittment that Janet and John have to the community. There’s also the wonderful staff that goes above and beyond to make people feel comfortable there.”

Hoshko said the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated just how loyal the customers are.

“That’s the perfect example,” she said. “People were concerned about going out to a store, but they still wanted to be customers of our store, so we did curbside pickup, we did personal shopping and in the beginning we even made deliveries. Janet was determined to make it work, and she did.”

Hutchison made the transition from librarian to bookstore owner, an education in and of itself.

“Managing a store is a whole different world,” she said. “In the library somebody else handles the budget, and you don’t have to worry about advertising. When you own the store it becomes necessary to be a jack of all trades. But I’m still doing the thing I enjoy the most, and that’s helping people find books to read. That’s what I was doing in the children’s room at the public library, and that’s what I’m doing now.”

Hutchison currently has roughly 20 people working at the store, which also includes a gift shop. Most of her employees are part time and all are avid readers. Hutchison herself reads about six books a month.

“One thing that keeps me going is keeping up on all the new books coming out,” she said. “I’m not a fast reader and I don’t make a point of trying to read fast. I’m also very selective. If a book doesn’t capture my imagination by the second or third chapter I’ll stop reading it. If I don’t care what happens next, if I don’t care about the characters, I’ll just stop. There are too many good books out there that need reading.”

She says she loves fiction, especially historical fiction, and also enjoys biographies — but not those necessarily devoted to famous people. She also says she never reads a book twice, with the exception of Esther Hautzig’s 1968 work “The Endless Steppe.”

“It’s about a Jewish family in Siberia whose father was drafted into the Russian army,” said Hutchison. “I was a young kid and it took me to a place like Siberia, which I knew nothing about, so I read that a couple of times. I enjoy reading books that take me to another time and to another place. It has to be something that will spark my interest and imagination.”

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