The Rewarding Business Of People & Paper: Nittany Quill Owner Shares Experience Running Store For 40 Years

Before opening her shop on Fraser Street, Joy Rodgers-Mernin had no idea her humble art supply store would turn into a beloved State College classic.

The Nittany Quill, founded in 1984 by owner Rodgers-Mernin, is a gift and stationery supply store that provides customers with unique offerings found nowhere else in the borough. From handmade cards for every occasion to journals and knick-knacks, the shop is designed to offer something special for every customer.

The idea for the Nittany Quill sparked after Rodgers-Mernin graduated as a studio art major from Smith College in 1982 with no clear idea for a career path. After doing odd jobs around the Boston area, Rodgers-Mernin tapped into her family’s entrepreneurial nature and returned home to start her own business. Considering her proximity to University Park and her professional background in art, opening an art supply store seemed like a no-brainer, and State College was the perfect location.

“I grew up in an entrepreneurial family as my father was a self-made dairy farmer, so it was not unfamiliar to me to do my own thing. I decided that my store would be an art supply store, and I also knew I needed a college town,” Rodgers-Mernin said. “I grew up in Belleville, which is 30 miles east, and my grandfather went to Penn State and graduated in 1932. Since I was already familiar with this area, I knew I wanted to come to State College to open the Nittany Quill.”

In its infancy, the art supply store began as an outlet for Rodgers-Mernin to sell and share the staple products she used throughout her art career. To add variety to the store’s offerings, she slowly implemented her own handmade art pieces onto the shelves during the shop’s first years. From holiday cards to memory books and magnets, Rodgers-Mernin began to sell the items she was creating in her free time away from the store. Customers quickly gravitated to her elaborate calligraphy pieces and handmade gifts, wanting more. 

Through listening to customer feedback and catering the store to their interests, Rodgers-Mernin grew the Nittany Quill from a small-scale art-supply store to the jack-of-all-trades gift shop it is today. 

“I was 24 when we started this store, and I carried the products that I used, like certain papers and pens, but it very quickly evolved,” Rodgers-Mernin said. “I began listening to my customers and kept asking ‘What do you need, what are you looking for?’ As we went along, people also started noticing that I do calligraphy and that’s what they wanted. So that’s what I became, and I created a whole line of calligraphy pieces for the store.” 

Starting out as a simple calligraphy line, Rodgers-Mernin expanded her work to include personalized Penn State gifts, from “We Are” postcards to blue and white themed bookmarks. Her Penn State products expanded beyond the Nittany Quill as she also created hand-drawn certificates and awards for various ceremonies on campus. Whether it be creating distinguished alumni awards or faculty certificates, Rodgers-Mernin said she’s grateful to use her talent to celebrate others and give back to the Penn State community. 

Today, her artwork covers the walls of the stores, mixed in with items hand-selected by Rodgers-Mernin from local tradeshows. She ensures she picks the best goodies to line her shelves, selecting from a variety of vendors to keep her store lively and up-to-date. From jewelry, game sets, posters, and novelty erasers, there’s always a brand new item to check out when strolling the aisles of the shop.

However, owning a paper store in an increasingly paperless world is no easy feat. Computers and online writing tools make leather-bound journals and handwritten letters seem like relics of the past. Despite this, Rodgers-Mernin emphasized that as technology becomes more integrated into our daily lives, more people will want a way to disconnect. The Nittany Quill will always be there for those who want to unplug and ditch their keyboards for pen and paper.

Keeping customers eager and excited about entering the shop is Rodgers-Mernin’s ultimate goal as owner. She said running the shop is similar to completing a puzzle as she must figure out the perfect arrangement of products to satisfy the preferences of a wide range of visitors. From the ever-changing flow of students to her loyal local customers, she described the often overlooked complexity of doing business in the Happy Valley. 

“Bigger companies think running a business in a college town is easy, but they are forgetting the ebb and flow of a college town. I have this core group of people that I see over the year, but then you have this turnover of people coming and going,” Rodgers-Mernin said. “My regular everyday customers are Penn State staff, professors, and people who have been here for more than four years. It’s a puzzle trying to figure out what you can keep as a constant and how much product you need to keep changing. This is why paying attention and watching what people are buying is so important.” 

Whether customers stop by for a quick chat or pop in to clear their heads, Rodgers-Mernin aims to foster a comforting, inviting environment in her shop. She said while stocking shelves with new releases and selling products is important, it isn’t why she wanted to begin her business. Being able to create an inclusive space downtown and form a community around the store is why she was compelled to open the Nittany Quill in the first place.

“The thing I hear a lot of people say when they come into the store is that it feels relaxing to them, and people actually stop by just to chill, read something on the walls, and not think about anything else. Sometimes we have a nice conversation and sometimes it’s just quiet, so I hope I serve a purpose in that way too,” Rodgers-Mernin shared. “I don’t want my life to just be about buying and selling, I want to give somebody a nice experience.”

Running the store for close to 40 years has made Rodgers-Mernin a well-loved member of the community and a friendly face for many State College residents. Opening the shop as a graduate student in 1984, Rodgers-Mernin has only grown in her enthusiasm and passion for the Nittany Quill and the customers who enter her door each day. She explained how the shop has grown alongside her, consistently improving as the years pass on the quiet corner of Fraser Street. Despite the changing trends and new cycles of students each year, Rodgers-Mernin said the Nittany Quill is here to stay for those who need it. 

“As you grow older, you develop as a person and really know who you are more, and it’s like the store knows who it is more and a has a stronger sense of character,” Rodgers-Mernin said. “I like to see this shop as a classic place where you can always find a classic gift. As long as there are enough people who want that, I will be here.” 

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About the Author

McKenna Murphy

McKenna is a second-year agricultural science major from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She is a Disney enthusiast, a proud ginger, and an iced coffee addict. You can follow her on Instagram @mckenna.murph or email her at [email protected].

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