Historic Entrepreneur Shares Highpoints of Her LifeAug 31, 2016 08:15PM ● By Melanie Heisinger
Betsy Rider, in the children’s section of her store—one of her favorites.
Community organizer, publicist, mother, entrepreneur; Betsy Rider, the multi-faceted owner of Otto’s Book Store in downtown Williamsport, has embraced all of these roles. As she prepares to sell her business, and step down, she takes time to recall some of her career—and personal—highlights.
Story and photographs by Erica L. Shames
Betsy Rider had dreams of her own, and outlined them in a poem, before graduating from college and heading home where her father, Jack Roesgen, lay dying in 1958.
“I made a list of all my plans, which included moving to New York City and getting a job that would lead to a job that would lead to a job that was interesting,” she joked.
Roesgen worked in, managed and ultimately purchased the H. Y. Otto's Bookstore in 1940. After his death, Betsy and her mother Margaret kept the business going.
“I knew where I needed to be,” says Betsy. “I hunkered down and worked [in the store] for a year, then I got married, and kept working,” said Betsy. “Then I had a baby.”
The high points
For the next 20-plus years, as Betsy mothered and nursed—she’s proud to say—10 children, she kept her hands in the business, making advertising decisions, filling in for her mother when she could get her kids to sleep—and bringing her children along when she couldn’t. She also served as promotions director for Williamsport’s downtown business association.
“I had something active on Pine Street Mall, which was then closed off to traffic, every week,” she recalls. “I figured if we could just get a picture in the newspaper, people would say, Oh, there still is a downtown!”
Over the 175-year history of the business—Betsy says it’s the nation’s oldest— the store’s location has changed nearly a dozen times. In the early 1970s, during the store’s last move, from 29 West 4th Street to the present location at 107 West 4th Street, Betsy recalls organizing teams of volunteers.
“We moved everything with no motorized vehicles,” she says with pride, “including carts from the recently closed J.C. Penney. I had floor maps of the old store and new one—and every item in the store was tagged with a code that corresponded to a code on the map. We started Saturday night at 5 and opened for business Monday morning at 9 a.m. with everything in place.”
Meeting the challenge
When the last of Betsy’s children went off to college in 1999, she came back to work at the store full-time. “I’ve never had a challenge I didn’t rise to meet,” she reveals. “I was scared to death when the [Lycoming] mall opened. I thought it was the end of us. Now Amazon is the biggest challenge. We’ll have people come in here, write down the book title and price and go home and order it online. The big thing is to stay connected to our customers.”
Customer service is a big part of the equation. “We gift-wrap everything for free, offer lay-away, do special-orders and deliver in-town for free,” she notes. “We recommend books for customers and do our best to get things as quickly as we can. There’s always the challenge of meeting the customer’s needs.”
Betsy found ways to set her store apart from competing chains with lower prices. One vital element, Betsy believes, is her passion for books and people, and her staff, including her son Tom, who oversees bookkeeping and inventory, Elisa and Nancy. At Christmastime Betsy adds one or two more.
“The staff is very sensitive to the needs of customers,” Betsy affirms. “And I like reading the books, advertising the books—even giving recommendations.”
Time to cut back
Part of Betsy’s decision to retire stems from the long hours required of her. “I learned to work 12-hour days through the Christmas season,” said Betsy. “Last year I told myself I was not going through that again. I was 81 years old, and thought it was time to cut back.”
Betsy, who turns 82 in September, now works part-time. She swims a few mornings a week, then hops on the 7:30 a.m. bus from her home, near Williamsport Hospital, to get to the store by 8. “I get the orders together so I’m ready to place them at noon. Then I’m out of here! Afternoons off are very nice,” she says with obvious delight.
Betsy looks forward to reading poems to residents of local senior centers, and spending time with her children, eight of which live in the Williamsport area. Her husband, John, who constructed many of the store’s bookshelves, passed away six years ago as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Every Sunday I host brunch for my kids in the area, anywhere from 19 to 25 people,” she says. “I like my family to get together. I have the wall of the ten most-wanted—a picture of each of my 10 kids—in my house. That keeps me positive! I don’t have grand dreams of anything more.”
Summertime Betsy rents cabins for her family—40 people last summer—on Loyalsock Creek, but that’s the furthest she will venture from her home. “I don’t want to travel,” she says with certainty. “Why would I want to travel? I know where to find everything I need. I’m happy where I am.”