Have you ever noticed a whiff of optimism when you open a new box of pencils? It’s subtle, but it’s there. Everything is pristine, fresh, untainted. No one has chewed off an eraser head. 

I’m a sucker for a new box of Dixon Ticonderogas. And I get super-nostalgic when it’s time to buy school supplies. 

But I have an excuse. My DNA is made up of strands of paper clips. For many years my family owned one of the region’s largest privately owned office supply companies. 

When my grandfather Murray Bedrin returned home from World War II, he opened his first store in Jersey City in February 1947. He named it Allied Office Products after the Allied forces. The business later moved to Rutherford.

Fast forward a couple of decades. The business grows to several retail locations. I’m in middle school. My dad and uncle are now running the company. These were the days before big-box stores invaded (infiltrated?) the Garden State. Pre-Amazon and Apple Pay. 

My Mom would drive my brother and me to one of the stores to shop for school supplies. We didn’t pay for our items, but we did have to keep a tidy list and account for our “purchases” for inventory purposes. 

When we were younger we scoured the aisles for wide-ruled composition notebooks, colored pencils and pink pearl erasers. As we got older our lists evolved; loose-leaf paper, binders, graphing paper and Trapper Keepers. Ah … the Trapper Keepers – the must-have accessory of seventh grade.

As it turns out, even though I’m predisposed to love sticky notes and Sharpies, I’m not the only one who feels this way about back to school shopping. My friend Susan Joseph recalls shopping for school supplies with her mother and sister at a local pharmacy in Potomac, Maryland, during the 1980s. 

“When I heard the sound of the velcro on the Trapper Keeper I knew it was back to school,” Joseph said.

The store was called People’s Drug, and it sold everything – it was akin to a Grove Pharmacy but larger and with greater inventory. Joseph says she remembers the store’s popcorn tile ceilings and unflattering lighting. She remembers the medicinal smell of the store. 

She also remembers “treasures,” like shiny bracelets and amazing Halloween costumes. It was here that she bought her beloved Aziza quartet eyeshadow kit in icy pastels. And while the makeup made her feel pretty, it was shopping for school supplies that had an even greater impact on her self-confidence.

As the child of immigrants she sometimes felt at a disadvantage to her classmates when it came to extracurricular stuff. But those feelings waned during these visits to People’s Drug. 

“I might not get the shiny bracelet I wanted, but I felt like I had the right things,” she said. “It was a leveling of the playing field.” 

At People’s Drug everyone was shopping from the same selection.

My family is no longer in the office supply business. Hasn’t been for 25 years. And People’s Drug is now a CVS. 

Many people don’t even go into stores to buy stuff for school. At our school we partnered with a third-party outlet to raise money for the PTA. We upload class lists, and anyone can click and shop. 

It’s kind of a bummer when I need to shop for things, like printer ink or fine-point black pens. Or Post-it Notes – have you seen how expensive they’ve become? 

But I’ve finally made peace with the fact that sometimes I am going to have to hit up Staples or Target or the local drugstore. At least when you shop in person you still get the tactile experience of running your fingers up and down the spine of a spiral notebook. 

I know that doesn’t make everyone happy, but in this crazy world it still brings me some comfort and joy – even if I have to pay for it.

Jaime Bedrin is an adjunct instructor at Montclair State University, where she teaches courses in journalism and media ethics. She also helps run the Montclair Kids News. When she's not in class you can find her on the tennis court or volunteering in the schools.