Meet a family whose passion for education and business led them to this longtime teacher resource store, and discover the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
In Stacy Fry’s family, business and education go hand-in-hand. Growing up, Fry learned both concepts from her mother, Jane Erikson, who taught Rockford public school children for 45 years, and also owned a preschool.
“My mother worked at Cherry Valley Elementary School, and she would work at the preschool next door,” recalls Fry. “After she would get out of school, she would pick me up and we’d go back to her classroom, and she even had an area for me to lay down, because it would be 11 or 11:30 at night when we’d go back home.”
It was no surprise to Fry when, in 2005, her mother retired from teaching and purchased The 3R’s Learning Materials Center, which has served teachers and families for 44 years. Today, Fry maintains daily operations, in coordination with her mother.
With four generations at the helm, this truly is a family business. Fry’s daughters, Keary and Kirsten, help with accounting and operations. Her son, Ryan, and his famly pitch in when they’re in town. Her young grandchildren greet customers.
The store specializes in learning resources that aren’t easily found elsewhere. Like an elementary school, it’s bright and cheery, and well stocked with a variety of educational toys and books. For teachers, there are classroom decorations, educational games, science supplies and classroom workbooks. Parents find educational games, school supplies, books and plush toys.
The store is a one-stop shop for teachers decorating their classrooms and parents interested in enhancing their children’s educations. Erikson and Fry offer information packets for homeschool parents and dispense advice to parents following conventional school conferences. They also remain up-to-date on local school curricula, to better serve customers.
“We want parents to feel they can come in and ask questions, and we can point them in the right direction,” says Fry. “We have sources out there that we can go to if we don’t have a particular item available. We always tell people, ‘Don’t feel like you have to buy something if you come in just to ask a question.’ We’ve found that more and more people are receptive to that, and you can’t find that at a lot of places.”
Everything is kid-friendly at The 3R’s. There’s a play area, and toys are everywhere. Even the littlest customers compliment Fry on the fun, relaxed atmosphere she provides.
“Kids come in and they’re maybe 8, 9 years old, and they say this is their favorite store,” says Fry.
Fry always wanted the chance to own her own business. In college, she crafted a business plan as a school project, and after more than a decade in the corporate world, she opened a tanning studio/gift shop in Rockton. For three years she ran the business, juggling time between her store and her corporate job. In 2005, Fry left the corporate world for good, sold her tanning studio/gift shop and joined her mother full-time at The 3R’s.
Though she has a degree in business, Fry says experience is the best teacher, when it comes to many business decisions.
One important decision was whether or not to relocate The 3R’s from its longtime location in the quiet back end of a shopping center near State Street. The store’s neighbors had vacated and the space was showing its age.
“When you buy a store from somebody, people still think you represent the previous owner, and I didn’t want that,” says Erikson. “I wanted to be a new establishment, and bring in our things. We needed to have a new face for what Stacy and I envisioned for an education store.”
In 2008, the pair explored new spaces on Rockford’s far east side, but decided the timing wasn’t right and the move wasn’t yet fully thought out. They agreed to keep researching. A few years later, when they received an invitation to locate inside Edgebrook, 1643 N. Alpine Road, they resumed the discussion.
“We came up here three times, and it’s like buying a house,” says Fry. “You know it’s the house when you walk in, and I swear, that’s how I felt. I walked in there that third time, and I said, ‘This is it. We’re ready to do this.’ It felt right. It was so exciting and energizing because we were able to start thinking ahead about how we wanted to improve the business.”
First, Fry had to negotiate a lease agreement. When all was ready, the family chose a long holiday weekend for the big move. Erikson, Fry and her children packed up and moved more than 500 boxes, plus several display racks. One week later, Fry’s son Ryan, an Army Staff Sergeant, left to serve in Afghanistan.
“I’ll never forget, when we had everything in the store, boxes all over, I was sitting on the floor at 2 in the morning,” Fry recalls. “I was bawling, because I didn’t know where anything should go, because I was so overwhelmed with everything. The next day, we all came in and talked, and it just fell into place.”
The new store wasn’t the only change she had to navigate.
“I found that staying open until 8 p.m. with only one customer a night, and only four the next night, wasn’t working,” Fry says. “So it was kind of hard for some customers to swallow, but now I close at 6 p.m. It was a good business decision in the long run.”
She’s happy to stay open late, by request, and she encourages loyal shoppers to take her up on that offer. “I tell everyone that if you’re running behind, all you have to do is call me and I’ll wait,” she says. “I really do believe that customers appreciate that I work around their schedules.”
In fact, if a customer pulls up as she’s walking out the door, Fry turns around and reopens the store. “I once tried to just leave, because I wasn’t feeling well at all that day,” she recalls. “I’ll never do it again, because I felt so badly about it.”
That’s part of Fry’s built-in work ethic and commitment to serving her customers – going above and beyond. Like when they were unpacking at the new store, and she gave a customer some ribbons, saying simply, “Send me a check.” Or the time when the power was out, and she handed out flashlights so customers could find their way around, and told them that they could pay for items later. “They were saying, ‘This is so much fun,’” Fry recalls.
Fry believes one factor in her favor is that she knows her customer base. Erikson and her sisters all were teachers, and Fry’s daughter Kirsten is a teacher-in-training. Fry and Erikson recognize the faces of many teachers and parents who have long shopped at the store, some traveling from Crystal Lake and Iowa.
“I’m happy when I see teachers who come in and say, ‘Thank you, I’m so glad you’re still here,’” says Erikson. “I feel like this is a way to let teachers know that I still value my profession.”
It’s not just about making a sale. To Fry, it’s about making a friend, and helping a potential customer.
“Did she buy anything? No, but you know what, she’ll remember me because I did something nice for her,” says Fry. “I know you have to make money to stay in business, but you also have to take the time for your customers, and you have to show them that you sincerely care.”
A few years ago, she started a one-stop shop for school supplies, and even offered to pack a child’s entire school supply list. She found it was too difficult to compete with big-box stores on price, but some customers didn’t care.
“For four years, this one woman has called me, and she says, ‘I don’t care if all you can give me is paper, this is what I need for each child.’ She tells me, ‘I will continue to go to you until I buy the last pad of paper you have, until I have to go to other stores.’ That makes me feel so good.”
This year, Fry offered a fun new educational activity for children to enjoy during summer vacation. With games like fishing for numbers, the “summer camp” was a hit with youngsters.
“We had field trips to each department in the store: language arts, science, early childhood, math, social studies,” Fry says. “My daughter Kirsten dedicated many hours at work and home to get this project up and running. She mentioned it on Facebook and told people they could come in for a half-hour or 40 minutes on certain days. She truly is a teacher.”
Fry is still learning from her mother, and appreciates the amazing work ethic Erikson has always displayed.
“When I was growing up, she worked part-time at Marshall Field’s, she was going to Northern [Illinois University] to get her master’s, we ran the preschool and she was teaching.” Fry says. “ I watched her do all of that, and I’m sure she took some days of vacation, but as a little girl, I never remember my mother once calling in sick, or taking vacation as I was growing up. She instilled in me good work ethics, and our family believes in that.”