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Money & Career

The Next Chapter: Stay-at-Home Mom Finds New Adventure in the Book Store Business

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For most of her life, Sandy Koropp followed what seemed like a fairly straightforward path.

She did well in school, and then in college and then in law school. She got a great job as an attorney, where she was rewarded for being ambitious and career-focused. When she and her husband had kids, it made sense for her family to push pause on her professional career and stay home with the three children. But she found the transition to be challenging. “It was tremendously difficult for me to understand what I was doing with my life, other than I loved being a mom,” she says.

After many years of staying home, her youngest son turned 14, and was, as she puts it, “old enough to make mac and cheese.” So she started considering what was next. She’d always dreamed of owning a bookstore, but had no experience in retail — nor did she wish to sink all her savings into a new business. So she got creative, and started thinking like an entrepreneur. She filled a suitcase with eight copies of eight books and toted it around to her friends’ book clubs in her town of Wheaton, located just outside of Chicago, sharing her love for each work. She quickly discovered she had a knack for sales.

Then, she started hosting cooking demonstrations and author talks in her own home. She had a knack for that, too, and attendance at one event hit nearly 80. Word spread about her “book and cook” events, and the owner of a local home furniture store in Wheaton reached out to her to see if she’d like to host events at his store. That’s when Koropp had an idea. The furniture store had an unused real estate in the back corner that resembled a small apartment. She asked the store owner if she could transform that area into her own bookstore. He agreed, and Prairie Path Books, was born.

It’s been four years of filling the rooms of that residential-style corner with children’s books, non-fiction, fiction, cookbooks and more. It’s become a gathering place for author events, discussions, cooking demos and, of course, locating the latest page-turner. The store has won multiple awards, including the Blue Ribbon as part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Dream Big Small Business Awards in 2015, and a “Best of Wheaton” awards three years in a row from the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce. In a few months, Koropp will open her second store just a few blocks away.

Along the way, Koropp, who is 53, had to learn how to be a business owner, a boss, a marketer and everything else that comes with entrepreneurship. She says one thing that’s really helped her is learning to delegate — a skill that has come with age. “I learned what I’m good at and what I’m not good at, and for me that’s been one of the keys to my success over the past four years,” she says. Koropp says she has people who help her with accounting, sales reports, budgeting and staging the store, as well as a number of other tasks, so that she can focus more on running the business and keeping up with the latest books. That is, after all, the biggest perk of the job. Between listening to audio books and reading, she says she typically goes through about three to four books per week.

When Koropp looks back on her journey, she says she’s happy and even relieved she took the risk. She loves organizing author events and gatherings at the store, she enjoys the chance to chat with staff and get to know customers and she loves reading in the name of “work.”

But there’s also this: in the fall, her youngest son will be the last of the kids to leave home when he heads off to college. She doesn’t expect the empty nest to trip her up too much. “I’m so grateful I found this next chapter in life.”

At the same time, she sees her decision to veer off her formerly straight path as a valuable lesson for her kids. She was able to show them that she has many sides and passions, in addition to being a mom. And they got to watch her figure out how to run a business, learning and making mistakes as she went along. Because of that, she says, they know that they can do anything they set their minds to. “They saw that if there’s something you want to do, you can connect the dots somehow and get there,” says Koropp. They know that if I can do it, they can do it.”

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