When Howard Ballein was first hired to work at a bookstore in 1952, he was paid 70 cents per hour. When he opened Student Book Store, or SBS in 1960, books sold for about $6 and the store was 1,800 square feet.
Now as Ballein, 76, celebrates the store’s 50th year in East Lansing, textbook prices have increased tenfold and SBS, 421 E. Grand River Ave., has expanded to 25,000 square feet of retail and 19,000 square feet of warehouse space.
SBS celebrated its gold anniversary Thursday, exactly 50 years after its first day of sales on Dec. 2, 1960. The store offered 20 percent off of all Green and White merchandise during its annual sale, Ballein said.
As a stock boy working near Ohio State University, Ballein traveled to dozens of bookstores in the region, he said. Ballein said he realized he had a gift for the business.
“I could remember books better and could remember titles and authors,” he said.
After graduating from Ohio State, where he met his wife and business partner Viv Ballein, Howard Ballein decided to open a store in East Lansing because of the market potential for used books sales and another, less business-related draw, he said.
“I was 26, and I thought the women here were the best looking ones,” said Howard Ballein as he sat with his wife and two sons, who all work with him, in his office overlooking the store. “I got offered the job, so I came up here.”
The Balleins settled in and worked hard in the beginning, with only Howard and Viv Ballein, one stock boy and after-dinner help from their three children.
Much has changed since then.
With a bigger store, more merchandise and MSU’s continued growth, SBS now employs 25 full-time staff, as well as about 100 part-time employees, of which the vast majority are students, Howard Ballein said.
“If we hadn’t had student help over the years, we would be in a lot of trouble,” he said.
A business lasting 50 years in East Lansing is unique, said Lori Mullins, community and economic development administrator for East Lansing.
“They have been very stable as a business and have been very supportive of redevelopment and improvement in the area around them,” she said.
SBS is able to maintain business in East Lansing because it addresses a need in the area, Mullins said.
“They have a wonderful store and a lot (of) great products that appeal to students and the community,” she said.
Customer service and providing used books are keys to the store’s longtime success, Howard Ballein said. SBS probably sells every product in any given backpack of an MSU student, he said.
SBS employees are helpful and provide good customer service, English sophomore Leah Barnett said.
“The students definitely need it, and it’s a great resource,” she said.
“It just shows why they (have) lasted as long as they have.”
Howard Ballein asks his sons if they want him to retire, but the answer is a firm “not yet.”
“He asks the boys every year, ‘Is this the year you want us to retire’ and they say, ‘No Dad, not this year,’” Viv Ballein said.
“Then one year, they said, ‘You can retire, but Mom has to stay,’ and Dad said, ‘Sorry, but (the business is) a two-person deal. I brought her to the dance, and I’m taking her home from the dance.’”
Staff writer Josh Sidorowicz contributed to this report.