Yet Bihary is not only selling office supplies, he's exceptionally good at it. So good that the store owned by Bihary and his wife, Jane, is doing something almost unheard of among independent businesses.
Queen Anne Office Supply and Stationery is competing with mega-office supply stores like Office Depot and Staples - and thriving.
The Biharys purchased the store in lower Queen Anne, which is becoming known in Uptown, with Jane Bihary's father and brother and their wives in 1976. At the time the shop, which had been around since 1950, was located where Nonna Maria Ristorante is now. The store carried about half office supplies and half Hallmark cards and gifts.
The new owners started out with three employees, 100 commercial accounts and gross sales of $150,000. Today, Chris and Jane Bihary are the sole owners of Queen Anne Office Supply, which has eight full-time and four part-time staff, 2,700 commercial customers, a warehouse space, a retail space that is 3 1/2 times its original
size and a projected $1.75 million in gross sales.
The opportunity to buy Queen Anne Office Supply came up after Bihary lost his job as a machinist and mechanic at the Boeing Co. during the large layoffs in the '70s. He went to work in the auto body repair trade for six years.
"I never saw myself doing that, but I've always been good with my hands," Bihary says.
But the dust and fumes began to play havoc with his health, and he jumped at the chance to become a partner in the office-supply store.
"I figured it was a new opportunity and something different to learn."
The success of the Biharys' store is the sum of several factors, some of which came about in response to the proliferation of the chain stores, sounding the death knell for small businesses.
"In the Seattle area, prior to 10 years ago, there were 75 to 100
office supply dealers," Bihary says. "Now there are four or five of us within the ci-ty limits."
Since custom-ers were shopping around for the best value, Bihary recognized that his prices had to be competitive with what he calls the "box stores." So about 15 years ago, Queen Anne Office Supply joined a national buying group of small businesses. The group members combine their buying power to purchase products the way chain stores do, in large quantities at lower per-item prices than they could get as individual businesses.
"It puts us on more of an even playing field. Our prices are very competitive [with the chain stores] on many items, with a 50-cent or a few $1 variations."
Bihary explains that the size of chain office-supply stores is misleading.
"There is a perception they have a lot of stuff because they have stacks that go to the ceiling."
He says the box stores range between 8,000 and 10,000 different items. In contrast, Queen Anne Office Supply has a much bigger selection of 20,000 items in its store. And that's not all.
"By the next day 250,000 are available through our store utilizing local vendors. Over 500,000 are available through special order and international vendors."
Bihary also hasn't allowed the store to fall into a trap that can hobble a small business to its death - ignoring the high-tech age. Queen Anne Office Supply uses technology to its advantage with a Web site featuring a catalogue that allow customers to order online or browse to find the item they want for free delivery or before they come in to the store.
At the same time Queen Anne Office Supply continues the small-business tradition of offering a high degree of personalized level of service to its customers. The employees have a depth of knowledge of their products that is tough to find in chain stores.
Bihary says the employees that stay at Queen Anne Office Supply share his philosophy of work.
"When I was an employee, I never felt the business owed me anything. Quite the contrary, they gave me an opportunity to work and earn money for my family."
The store's employees become like family, according to Bihary.
"I like to get to know them, to understand better what makes them tick. It helps me cut them slack."
Having seen the ravages of addiction on some of his own relatives, Chris Bihary has hired individuals with abuse problems who are working to change their lives. The Biharys also belong to organizations that help them provide better benefits to the employees at lower rates.
Doing it yourself
Another key to the business' growth is that the Biharys have been fiscally conservative. They saved whenever possible and they did the work themselves wherever they could. Bihary did the construction work when the business later split into a card shop and an office supply store. When the business expanded into the Laundro-mat location next door, Chris Bihary performed the remodeling, building fixtures and installing electricity.
Eventually, the Biharys bought the building where Queen Anne Office Supply is located, stabilizing the rents for the other businesses in the building, as well as themselves.
When Hallmark decided to allow the premium product lines exclusive to the Hallmark stores to be sold in drugstores and grocery stores, the Biharys quickly stemmed their losses by closing the card shop.
Knowing when to have someone else do the work is also critical, according to Bihary. "My father-in-law planted the seed with me early on - knowing he couldn't do it all himself because you only have so many hours in the day and can only do so much. I know I need to delegate and let go of certain things in business, even things I felt strongly about, including the accounting computer system."
The store's computerized accounting system was created 15 years ago by Bihary, who had no formal programming background. But he realized the system's importance and that the existing software was outrageously expensive.
"I got a consultant to help with the things I didn't know [about building the system]," says Bihary, who spent far less on the consultant than he would have on the software.
Since then, Bihary has learned to build, maintain and repair the computers in the store and the network that joins them. Bihary's son helped him design the store's Web page five years ago, which includes an online ordering system.
Bihary donates his time and money to the community. He says that, while he isn't rich, he has been doing all right for awhile and he knows others are worse off than he is.
"The only way to balance things out is to give back where you feel you can do some good."
Bihary has served in varying capacities with the Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce since 1976. He is Queen Anne's clean-up guru, having organized the first Annual Queen Anne Clean-Up Day 20 years ago, to clean up trash and graffiti in the neighborhood. Besides representing the business community with regard to the proposed monorail and the establishment of the Aloha Inn transitional housing shelter, he has pushed to find more on-street parking for the Uptown business area.
Queen Anne Office Supply has sponsored a Little League team for 27 years, as well as donating to other youth athletic events. The store has also supported shelters, charities and nonprofit organizations such as the Queen Anne Helpline and the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Bihary contends that contributions by small businesses like his are the non-profit backbone of any community.
"We [small businesses] do more for nonprofit organizations and people who are really in need than any of the big guys, even when you add them all up, because there are so many more of us."
It's not just nonprofit enterprises that Bihary champions.
"I also try to support other local businesses. I believe we all need to support each other so we have the collective strength to give back to the community."
And if all of those small business owners are as resourceful, intelligent and persistent as the Biharys, their numbers should flourish.
Editor Maggie Larrick can be reached at email@example.com.