A Goodwill store anchors the strip shopping center with the bright red roof. Many of the other businesses have moved out, typical of the U.S. 19 landscape in Pasco County.
The economy has seen better days.
But at the south end of Jasmine Plaza, the door swings open to a colorful wonderland of educational materials — everything from chalkboards to ingenious games that engage young brains and encourage critical thinking.
If you're a local schoolteacher, you probably know this place.
Even if you're not, you have to admire the story of two sisters who had no business background but, through hard work and determination, carved out a niche that has now lasted 30 years.
At a time when women didn't often own businesses, Nancy Reitano and Patty Corneillie created theirs with a touch of irony. They both taught fourth grade at Northwest Elementary School in Hudson. Patty had a 1-year-old son; Nancy was pregnant with her fourth child. They wanted badly to spend more time with their children.
"Why don't we open a school supply store?'' Patty asked her sister, figuring a small business would give them more flexibility than teaching school. They talked to a business adviser at the University of South Florida who didn't think much of the idea.
"He did say, "maybe you girls can do it,' '' Nancy recalled, "but he warned it wouldn't be easy.''
By the summer of 1982, the sisters were ready. They insisted their husbands stay out of it; this was their gig. They picked out space in a shopping center on U.S. 19. They chose a name: the Learning Station.
And once they opened, they quickly learned this new business would indeed afford them more time with their youngest children. "We had to take them to work,'' Nancy said. "They had a grand time. They used to climb on the shelves and play with everything. We were, like, "Could you take a nap so we can do something?' ''
Word got around quickly that two former teachers were now in business selling school supplies. In two years, they outgrew the first store and moved into one twice as big at Jasmine Plaza.
The sisters had never doubted they could co-exist in business. As teachers at Northwest, they saw each other every day, all day. "We always got along,'' said Patty, 12 years younger. "I have always admired my big sister.''
They grew up on Long Island, N.Y., with two other sisters, Angela and Sue. Nancy, now 68, came first. Patty was the baby. Their dad, a house painter, and mother, a homemaker, made sure each girl graduated from college. "Education was always the most important thing,'' Nancy said. "That and family. We have always been very, very close.''
When their parents retired and moved to New Port Richey, the sisters followed. Angela lives across the street from Nancy. Their mom, Jean, has been widowed for 20 years. She is 94 and lives independently in an apartment next door.
At the Learning Station, Nancy keeps the books, organizes the inventory. She describes her little sister as the "creative one.'' Patty agrees. "I'm always getting excited when customers come in with an idea,'' she said. "I'm always the one saying, 'This is great!' Nancy is more level-headed and reserved. We've been such a good team, and I don't think we've had two arguments in 30 years.''
Although Patty is still involved with the store, she returned to teaching school five years ago when the economy began to cause concerns. She teaches first grade at Carrollwood Elementary but helps her sister on projects.
The sisters also rely on loyal employees like Donna True, a retired teacher who remembers shopping at the store in its early days.
"When you shopped there, they became your friends,'' True said. "They were so sincere and helpful, and they could relate with what other teachers wanted to accomplish. That has never changed.''
True, 70, joined the Learning Station part-time 17 years ago. Some months ago, she had to take leave after being diagnosed with cancer. "Nancy and Patty have called every week to check on me,'' she said. "They are such generous people. I mean, Nancy never fails to thank me when I'm leaving the store. Can you imagine a boss like that?''
When the economy went south, schools cut budgets and the Learning Station felt the trickle-down shock. Teachers have gone several years without a raise and have less to spend on supplies. But the sisters notice one oft-overlooked tradition continues: dedicated teachers still dig into their own pockets to help their students.
"I have always been proud to be an educator,'' Patty said. "We're not big business, but I feel like we have really helped teachers. We're still here because they know us.
"Nancy and I bungled our way without a business background, but the other day as we thought about 30 years, I said, 'Nan, we did good.' ''