Back-to-school shopping makes the grade at local stores

Debbie Gropman, the buyer at Straight A's in

Debbie Gropman, the buyer at Straight A's in White Plains, displays a "Puppet on a Stick," an education tool for imagination play, dexterity and hand-eye coordination. (Aug. 15, 2012) (Credit: Leslie Barbaro)

With the first day of school fast approaching, it's time to start back-to-school shopping. While it's easy to stock up on school supplies at big box retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart, the Hudson Valley is home to a number of independently owned education stores where local parents can get hands-on help.

At Straight's A's in White Plains (180 E. Post Rd.; 914-437-8922; www.facebook.com/pages/Straight-As/251515854866837), parents and their kids can get all the back-to-school basics, as well as educational toys and gifts from "birth to grade 12," said owner Kenny Friedman. Every elementary school-aged child should have glue sticks, rulers, age-appropriate scissors, crayons, folders and No. 2 pencils in their backpacks, Friedman said. "Teachers are specifically asking for the Taegonderoda [No. 2] pencils."

It's that attention to detail that makes Straight's A's, which will celebrate its one-year anniversary in September, a good resource for Westchester parents. The store is expanding its hours -- normally 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except for Wednesdays (10 a.m. to 8 p.m.) and Sundays (noon to 5 p.m.) -- over the next two weeks specifically for back-to-school shopping. This week, the store will be open until 8 p.m. Monday through Friday; during the week of Aug. 26, the store will open early at 9 a.m. from Monday to Saturday.

Besides back-to-school items, the store offers educational toys that make learning fun. Friedman said two of the top sellers are Magnatab, a magnetic alphabet that helps children learn the alphabet, and My Healthy Plate, an activity set that assists kids in learning about healthy eating and nutritional guidelines.

"[At our store, customers] get people that have been in the business for many years and know what they're talking about," Friedman said. "They can just get a more comfortable shopping experience."

In nearby New Rochelle, Educational Tools N' Toys (572 Main St.; 914-632-9080) is also in the business of assisting teachers and parents with their back-to-school needs.

"We're committed to the schools and education market year-round, and committed to good prices year-round," owner Rosa McGrath said.

Like Straight A's, the store is also staying open late -- until 10 p.m. from Aug. 28 to Sept. 11 -- to give customers extra time to get their shopping done.

Open for 15 years, the store, which primarily stocks supplies for elementary and middle-school students, strives to ensure that parents' needs are met, McGrath said. A major difference between an independent store like hers and national chains are the products her store carries, she says.

"When I go into Staples, all their products -- the paper, the binders, etc. -- it's all stamped with their name," McGrath said. "Stores like mine carry brand names, like Elmer's Glue and Avery Folders. I just think that a consumer needs to know the manufacturer, where the product comes from ... and what the quality is."

The Parent-Teacher Store, which has locations in Kingston and Poughkeepsie as well as one in Albany County, similarly prides itself on its extensive selection and attentive customer service. The stores offer educational items for Pre-K to high school, but are geared towards elementary school. Carol Parrish, an employee at the 21-year-old Kingston location (63 N. Front St.; 845-339-1442; www.parentteacherstore.com), says that the Parent-Teacher stores offer a better back-to-school shopping experience for local parents than big-box stores.

"They just can't supply all the materials that we do because they're limited in space, and we have [school supplies] all year long," Parrish said.

She pointed out that parents often have school shopping needs that extend beyond the fall season, and that local stores can fill a need that larger retailers cannot. As an example, she cited how third-graders study New York state history during the school year, and how their parents often come to the Kingston store looking for figurines for Revolutionary War dioramas.

"Parents think, 'Where am I supposed to buy these things?'" Parrish said. "And no matter the item, we try to bend over backwards and do as much as we can to help them find what they're looking for."

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