Marking Christmas in August

The Baltimore Sun

After 4-year-old twins Paige and Lindsay Hockensmith watched their older sister Makenzie board the bus to start third grade at West Friendship Elementary School, they decided they wanted to learn, too.

So their mother, Denise Hockensmith, took them to Learning How, a school-supply store in Columbia, for some materials that would help them with their letters and math.

"We're having fun," Hockensmith said, looking at a boxed kit that helps kids with patterns. "There's a lot of good stuff here."

It's a busy time of year for Learning How, which opened in Columbia in 1995 and moved to its current McGaw Road location three years later.

"This is our Christmas right now," said Mike Wayland, the company's chief financial officer. "It typically goes from the last two weeks of August to the first two weeks of September."

Most customers are teachers who are setting up their classrooms, but plenty of parents come in looking for school supplies or educational toys. Once the back-to-school rush ends, the store will focus more on toys, while still stocking the items that teachers need, Wayland said.

"We'll always be first and foremost a teacher store," he said.

John E. Faw started Learning How in the early 1950s as a teacher supply section of Lycett's department store in Baltimore. The first stand-alone store opened in Catonsville in 1968. There are seven stores in Maryland, including locations in Annapolis, Frederick and Towson. John E. Faw Jr. is the CEO.

The Columbia store, at 9,000 square feet, is more than twice the size of most other stores, Wayland said, and is the only Learning How in Howard County. It stocks items mostly for kindergarten through eighth grade, but there are items for preschoolers and high school students, too. The store is divided into sections by topic, such as science, math and social studies.

Wayland said ideas for what to carry in the store come from trade shows like the annual Toy Fair, held in New York City each winter. The store also is a member of the National School Supply and Equipment Association, he said.

This time of year, the front of the store carries stuff that teachers need most, including flash cards, room decorations and packs of laminated desk plates that help children with letters, shapes, colors, coins and telling right from left.

One top seller this year is a simple teacher's pointer that has a cartoon-style plastic hand on the end, Wayland said. Also gaining in popularity are science supplies, including kits that teach children about body parts such as the eye and brain, about the properties of light and, of course, about chemical reactions. The chemistry sets sold by Learning How are guaranteed not to make your house explode, said store manager Denise Collins.

Pencils and erasers always are popular. "We sell them by the tens of thousands this time of year," Wayland said.

Most of the evening employees at Learning How in Columbia are teachers during the day, Collins said.

Teachers have the advantage of knowing what's going on in the schools. For example, a writing program that's gaining popularity in Howard County, called Six Plus One, emphasizes specific steps in the writing process, from ideas to presentation.

An employee who is also a teacher had taken a workshop on Six Plus One. She told Collins about it, and Collins told her to set up a display with workbooks and posters that would help teachers who are using the method in the classroom.

Employees also have no problem opening a box to show teachers or parents how an item is supposed to work, she said.

"We're notorious for opening things up to make sure the teacher is finding exactly what she wants," Collins said.

Yesterday, Sharon Calloway was having no trouble finding what she needed as she pushed a shopping cart through the aisles. She's director of the after-school program at Waverly Elementary School and needed some wall decorations, including a Happy Birthday poster, she said.

She shops at Learning How five or six times a year, she said, and "my entire staff comes here to pick up stuff."

For teachers, she said, Learning How is one-stop-shopping.

"It has everything that teachers need," she said.

Learning How is at 8895 McGaw Road, Columbia, and can be reached at 410-381-0828.

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