Wineka: Crysels built a creative career
By Mark Wineka
Ken and Margarete Crysel have placed a small binder at the front of their store.
They call it a “memory book.”
On the pages, their customers ó mostly teachers ó have written a few words about the Crysels’ decision to retire and close Creative Teaching Aids Dec. 19.
“I don’t know how I can teach without your help,” Margie Simmerman of Concord wrote.
Gail Langdon said, “You were always there when I needed you and so helpful.”
“A wonderful part of returning to school each year,” a teacher named Sandra said, “was to come and visit you.”
These last weeks leading up to their retirement have been bittersweet for the couple. Whether the store is bought and remains in business in Salisbury is a matter for negotiations yet to come, but one thing is certain, the Crysels are getting out after 34 years.
They started with a small store in Waynesville, but they relocated to Salisbury 20 years ago and never regretted it. At 310 S. Main St., in what once was downtown’s JC Penney, they fashioned the largest store of its kind in the Southeast.
“I just never thought I could give it up,” Margarete says. “It’s been hard, so hard.”
Ken manages a smile: “She would probably sell me before she would sell the store,” he says.
In late September, the Crysels decided on Dec. 19 as their last day because for once they wanted to have a real Christmas at home, not the store.
Margarete says she will bake cookies and decorate a tree instead of store windows. Of all the inventory that will be left in their store even after their 40 percent-off-everything sale, “I’ll worry about that later,” she says.
Margarete fights rheumatoid arthritis. She has had one leg amputated and is battling problems with her other leg. She knows that if she retires and isn’t constantly running around the store, her health will improve.
Back in 2001, on the advice of her doctors, the Crysels cut their store hours, even though they remained open seven days a week and constantly worked when the lights weren’t on.
Margarete had terribly high blood pressure and, over a stretch of time, faced six surgeries in five years.
“It got pretty bad,” she says.
When her leg was amputated, she spent the first 30 days of her recovery working and sleeping at the store. She always was in charge of ordering and wanted to keep on top of things.
She says the store and her customers were her life, which made giving it up seem impossible.
But something a retired teacher told her made sense.
She wouldn’t be giving up the store, the teacher said. Instead, she would be trading it in for a new life with Ken.
“I can’t have the joy I had before because I’m in so much pain,” Margarete says.
Even as items have disappeared from the shelves over the past couple of months, Margarete hasn’t been able to escape the feeling that she should be buying things to take their place. The store doesn’t have a going-out-of-business look to it, because Ken keeps filling up the holes with things from upstairs and basement storage areas.
Creative Teaching Aids is definitely a destination type of location for shoppers. The teachers (and parents) who come in the door usually are there to buy something, and often they don’t pass the front counter before asking where to find it.
“I know where every single thing is,” Margarete says. “We have always carried a huge inventory.”
Creative Teaching Aids has more than 15,000 educational products for sale in its store or through its print and online catalogs.
Not many stores have whole aisles devoted to lead pencils. Margarete moves quickly through the store, showing a visitor all the bulletin board materials, posters, workbooks, pre-cut letters, flash cards and memory games available. That barely scratches the inventory.
There are inspirational products, rubber stamps, language activities, awards, stickers and arts and crafts.
It’s not really the stuff you find at a Staples or Office Depot. Creative Teaching Aids doesn’t sell notebook paper, for example.
“We try to carry everything the big-box stores don’t.” Margarete says.
Catalog and online orders represent about 30 to 40 percent of their business, Ken estimates. The couple have shipped orders across the world.
Store customers come from a wide area in the central Piedmont, especially the contiguous counties. Teachers from out of town usually came in the summer months. Some spent all day in the store, breaking for lunch and coming back.
Local teachers usually waited until their work days before school started.
The back-to-school days were always Creative Teaching Aids’ biggest, with lines often forming at both checkouts.
Teachers were the primary customers, of course, followed by parents. Creative Teaching Aids served public schools, private schools, home-schoolers, tutors and churches.
“These teachers are so dedicated in what they do,” Margarete says. “The teachers, they’re the ones who make us who we are.”
Margarete taught school for three years in the mountains of North Carolina, but she didn’t enjoy the pressure of teaching and the overwhelming responsibility she felt for her students.
Still, she wanted to be an educator and persuaded Ken they could do it through a store devoted to supplying teachers with products that could help them in their jobs.
Ken was teaching library science at Western Carolina University at the time. He was raised in Wilkesboro and growing up, had worked constantly in his uncle’s country store.
“He wasn’t too eager to start another store,” Margarete says.
Their first Waynesville location stood across from the county courthouse. The couple also started attending trade shows and educational conventions to make the Creative Teaching Aids’ name known. They moved for a time to North Wilkesboro before deciding on Salisbury in 1989.
Ken was familiar with Salisbury from his four years as librarian at Pfeiffer College.
They first occupied a small street-level store at the Empire Hotel.
“This was a good move,” Margarete says. The Salisbury store made more in its first month than the couple had generated during their first year in Waynesville.
As business grew, the store expanded into space on both sides of the Empire Hotel location.
When Ken told Margarete that Super 10 was closing and the former JC Penney building would be available, “I said, ‘I have to have that building,’ ” she recalls.
The Crysels moved their entire operation one block south during a hot July Fourth holiday in 1993.
Margarete used graph paper to lay out exactly where everything would go in the new store. Again, their business increased significantly.
“It’s been a marvelous location,” Margarete says. “People have to see you as successful to make you successful.”
“Now people say, ‘I remember when you were a hole in the wall.’ ” Ken says.
It sparks a protest from Margarete. “We were never a hole in the wall,” she says.
This past summer, the Crysels moved from a Firehouse Loft condominium to a house in Country Club Hills.
In February, they lost their beloved Bonnie, a 14-year-old cat that was a favorite among customers.
A new stray cat, Simon, has entered their lives now at the new house.
So it’s been a year of transition for Ken and Margarete. That’s all right. They have memories that could fill many books and many shelves.