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Pioneer Valley Books settles in at Northampton industrial park

  • Pioneer Valley Books has recently moved from Amherst to Northampton. A view of the interior is shown on March 5, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Pioneer Valley Books has recently moved from Amherst to Northampton. A view of the interior is shown on March 5, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Pioneer Valley Books has recently moved from Amherst to Northampton. A view of the interior is shown on March 5, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Pioneer Valley Books has recently moved from Amherst to Northampton. A view of the interior is shown on March 5, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Director of Sales and Marketing at Pioneer Valley Books, Lauri Yanis, makes a final check of book cover proofs to assure that the color quality, size and layout are correct. Yanis works in Northampton, the new home of Pioneer Valley Books, on March 5, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Director of Sales and Marketing at Pioneer Valley Books, Lauri Yanis, makes a final check of book cover proofs to assure that the color quality, size and layout are correct. Yanis works in Northampton, the new home of Pioneer Valley Books, on March 5, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Pioneer Valley Books has recently moved from Amherst to Northampton. A view of the interior is shown on March 5, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Pioneer Valley Books has recently moved from Amherst to Northampton. A view of the interior is shown on March 5, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Director of Sales and Marketing at Pioneer Valley Books, Lauri Yanis, makes a final check of book cover proofs to assure that the color quality, size and layout are correct. Yanis works in Northampton, the new home of Pioneer Valley Books, on March 5, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

Pioneer Valley Books is not as out of place as it may seem at first on this stretch of Industrial Drive between Damon Road and Bates Avenue, parallel to King Street.

“The industrial park is not a traditional park that has a centralized manager who controls all the parcels,” says the city’s Economic Development Director Terry Masterson. “They are individually owned, with tenants coming and going and can be retail and warehouse both.”

That suits Pioneer Valley Books to a T, as the company had been looking to bring its office and warehouse staff under one roof. The company moved to 155A Industrial Drive in Northampton last September. Previously the business, which opened in 1998, had offices in Amherst and warehouses in various locations around the Valley.

“It’s excellent being here,” says Lauri Yanis, the firm’s director of sales and marketing.

“I love that we have this much space and that we’re all together,” Yanis says. “We had experienced what it was to outgrow a space. Now we’re going to grow into it.”

The company has a staff of 16. It started out much smaller, space-wise and staff-wise.

The first space the company outgrew was company founder and president Michele Dufresne’s home, where she and fellow reading teacher Laurel Dickey started the company in response to what they felt was a dearth of quality books for beginning readers.

“We really didn’t have the intention of becoming business people. We just didn’t have the books we needed for the teaching we were doing,” Dufresne said in an interview from her winter home in Florida. “I was running around writing little books and handing them out to the teacher and I said, ‘Why don’t we just print them up?’”

They began by writing what are still called their “black-and-white” books and brought them to an early literacy conference in Rhode Island to sell to fellow teachers.

“They took up one-third of a 6-foot table with the books and sold out in less than an hour,” Yanis says.

Since then, the company has grown to become a $4 million to $6 million per year operation with 600 to 1,000 titles in its catalogue, according to Yanis, with Dufresne still writing two-thirds of the books in the catalogue.

“Even though I’m here in Florida, I work every day, said Dufresne. She happened to be arranging for a photo shoot of dogs on the beach for one of her latest books. “Technology has made it so we can live down here.”

Meanwhile, in Northampton, the company’s staff of 16 work as writers, editors, designers, customer service and marketing representatives, and in packing and shipping. Since the business started, it has added one or two new staff positions a year.

So how does Pioneer Valley Books compete with the “big guys,” as Yanis refers to established publishers such as Scholastic, Rigby and Heineman?

“We have local teachers whom we invite in to write reviews pre-publication,” Yanis says. “They go page by page and they’re very experienced literacy teachers who’ll say, ‘You need a dog on this page to provide context.’ ”

Laural Homstead, a longtime reading teacher now working at Fort River Elementary school in Amherst, has reviewed their books and uses them in her classroom.

“They’re really great books,” Homstead says. “I especially like the books that are at the earliest levels. They’re high interest and the quality of the pictures is good. I also love that you can read the entire book online.”

Yanis also cites the staff’s training and relationship with its customers as something that distinguishes the company from some of the competition.

“We are so intricately involved with our customers. Teachers call us directly,” Yanis says. “I don’t let anyone start answering the phone until they’ve spent two to three weeks learning about early literacy.”

Also, the company has plans to keep pace with the electronic revolution. “We have an iPad app and we’re looking at e-books. We think that is a growing trend for schools to use,” said Dufresne.

A walk through the spacious office proves Yanis’ point about having room to grow. A stuffed sofa and wicker chairs in the central office area are placed before tall shelves showcasing the company’s publications. Book covers sport fluffy white puppies in pastel party hats and kittens poking up from shiny green rain boots.

“Our books are character-driven because kids get invested in a character,” Yanis says of the popular “Bella and Rosie” series about the adventures of two Bichon Frise dogs who are sisters.

The sound of clicking computer mice can be heard as a visitor continues on past the desks of designers working on page layouts. An office door leads to the break room, where office and warehouse staff are now able to share downtime together since the merging of both operations under one roof.

The other end of the break room leads to the shipping and warehouse areas where staff pack boxes of books, load them onto pallets and roll them out to the shipping dock for delivery to customers.

Most of the company’s local customers come from Holyoke, Springfield and Amherst schools, and their customer base is driven largely by word-of-mouth, Yanis says.

“We’ve been an ambassador-driven business,” Yanis says, referring to the teachers who recommend their work to one another. “We’re very fortunate in that way. I have a large marketing budget and I don’t have to use it in that way.”

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