John Spiteri fell in love with rock music at a J. Geils concert at Hillsdale College back in 1973. He was a junior at Hillsdale High School, working in his father’s shoe store.
Seven years later, with this passion for music and a $1,000 loan, John loaded his parents’ car with records and drove to the corner of E. Bacon Street. In a small building there, he and his wife, Robin, set up their own shop: Checker Records, so named because they painted the ceiling tiles black and red like a checker board.
The store moved to Howell Street in 1997, and sells more than records now: winter hats, coloring books, ukuleles, baked goods, and award-winning coffee (Checker Records was voted among the top 10 coffee shops in Michigan in a 2015 MLive contest). But the Spiteris still show up at the shop every day, calling customers by name as they work the espresso machine and the cash register on a bustling Tuesday afternoon.
“I never thought I’d still be doing it,” John said, noting that record stores are a “dying breed.”
Despite the odds against a small business in a small town, he and Robin aren’t the only Spiteris to successfully run a small business in Hillsdale. It’s a family trait: John’s grandfather, father, sister, and son have all done the same.
“There’s a tradition to it,” said Derek Spiteri, John’s son and owner of Handmade, a sandwich and beverage shop on Hillsdale Street.
It all started with John’s grandfather, an immigrant from Sicily, Italy, who opened a shoe store in the 1940s in a building on Howell Street that now holds a travel agency. John’s father took over the business, and John and his two sisters helped out in the store throughout their highschool years.
John said he didn’t want to keep selling shoes, so he and Robin opened Checker Records in 1980. They didn’t sell coffee until 2005.
“We didn’t have a clue about coffee,” John said. “We just got a book, looked things up, learned by trial and error. We matched names of drinks to artists’ songs. It wasn’t rocket science, but it sounded cool.”
Now, coffee provides most of their business, he said, and has picked up their music sales too. And it won them their award.
A little risk and a can-do attitude drove John’s sister’s business success as well. Suzanne Spiteri knew she had artistic gifts when she worked in the family shoe store and always liked to arrange the window display, she said. While working full time in clerical jobs later on, she painted and sewed on the side, selling her work at a local antique mall. She also painted the Checker Records logo on the store’s floor, which is now hidden by the coffee equipment, she said.
Itching to do something more creative than clerical work, Suzanne said she decided to “take a leap of faith” and open up The Crow’s Nest, a primitive item and craft shop. Now located in the same space on E. Bacon Street where Checker Records used to be, the store is stocked with country-style inventory, including candles, gourmet foods, jewelry, and furniture painted by Suzanne herself. Suzanne is the owner and the only employee, with a cat to keep her company.
“I’m real happy with everything,” Suzanne said, explaining that she’s had to expand the shop by opening up the back room, which used to be her studio. “I know that my dad would be so proud that we’ve carried on his legacy of having a business in Hillsdale.”
The tradition stands even to the fourth generation. Derek Spiteri’s great-grandfather’s cash register from the shoe store sits behind the counter at Handmade, a reminder of the family tradition. Derek credits his family with much of his business know-how and his ability to open the store — after renovating the dilapidated building himself — last fall.
“I learned how to foster a good environment from my parents’ business,” he said, noting that Handmade has an open kitchen so he can have face-to-face interactions with customers. “You’ve got to be committed to being there. You want to make sure all your customers are happy and that you’re instilling those values in your employees.”
If there’s one thing the Spiteris attribute to their success — besides working hard to produce quality products — it’s love for their work and their customers. In a way, it all goes back to the J. Geils concert: John’s love for music and interaction with the community produced something lasting.
John said as much himself when he considered why his business has thrived for so long.
“It’s probably the interaction we have with our customers,” he said. “And I still love music.”
Sophomore Isabelle Parell, who has worked at Checker Records since last fall, affirmed that John and Robin’s care for customers and employees drives their success.
“John remembers everyone’s drinks,” she said, adding that one customer always brings in a puppy that John has grown especially fond of. “Robin acts like a mother to me — when I’m stressed, she asks about it. Robin really loves to do well and commits to the business. While the business is familial and fun, they still try to be efficient.”
Suzanne, too, said her connection with customers and love for art helps keep The Crow’s Nest in business.
“I try to give my customers the personal service that you can’t get if you order online or something,” she said. “I just love being here — it’s not a job. It’s where my heart is, I guess.”