Here’s how Northern Michigan retirees are finding jobs, and a sense of belonging, while saving the day for local small-town businesses. We take a look at an interesting trend happening at Horizon Books in Cadillac.

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

You might notice a small posse of women of a certain age out and about in Cadillac. They meet to walk in the mornings, shop for cruise-wear together, watch each other’s cats, co-host a community book club in a nearby greenhouse. They even throw Cadillac’s biggest tea party every spring.

They live in town or the surrounding lake and farm country—one in the shadow of Caberfae Peaks, another in Boon, one out in Luther in the next county over. But, truly, these far-flung neighbors may not have found this close-knit friendship if it weren’t for a singular thread: They all work at Horizon Books Cadillac.

The bookstore has been an anchor in town for 31 years. Manager Tereesa Arn says the Cadillac store’s steady success in recent years is due in part to a silver bullet: “I hire reliable retirees who are friendly, extraordinary, flexible and don’t require a living wage,” she shares. “All of my staff except myself and a soon-to-be retiring teacher fit these criteria—six retirees in total.”

It’s no secret Northern Michigan’s small towns and vacation communities are desperately seeking employees, a longstanding dilemma exacerbated by the pandemic and by the stark lack of  workforce  housing. Arn says that her cohorts at Horizon Books in Traverse City tell her that hiring locals 55 and up as part-time staff is a model “they’d love to emulate, if people would come forward.”

Retiree working at a small business

Photo by Dave Weidner

The hope is with enough people stepping into these roles, even for a few days a week, the region’s robust retiree population could have the potential to help flip the script on the local labor narrative.

A multigenerational workforce may not be a total stretch in thinking. As Forbes reported last fall, while more than 2 million people retired nationally during the first 18 months of the pandemic than was otherwise expected, they now appear to  be heading back to work. Forbes described this trend as “quiet returning”—a generational slant rhyme on the term  “quiet quitting,” which Gen Z popularized via TikTok videos that shared the art of doing just enough at a job without letting it take over your life.

Forbes analysts note that retirees are quietly returning for more than money. While survey data from Joblist indicated a certain number of those quietly returning to work were doing so because they needed the money or feared inflation was eroding their retirement nest egg, the largest percent of retirees returning to work said they were simply in need of something fulfilling to do.

Retirees working at a small business book shop

Photo by Dave Weidner

As Benzie Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michelle  Barefoot  brings  home, “most retirees who I know Laura Henry, Vlasta Bovee, Linda Becktel enjoy their ‘free time’ for a while before they get bored. There is only so much golf and gardening that one can do before they miss … the routine.”

Barefoot adds, “These folks are the cream of the crop, they have the experience and expertise, but may not want to necessarily engage fully back into the workforce.”

Instead,  she  notes,  they  typically  look  into  volunteering at a nonprofit organization. “In  Benzie’s case: Benzie Area Christian Neighbors, Oliver Art Center, Benzie Senior Resources and the Benzie Historical Museum are often flooded with senior volunteers; plus, all of the church quilt bees and other engagements at their houses of worship.”

But  what  can  happen  if  some  retirees  consider—in  addition to their volunteer roles—working at small local businesses, supporting  their  entrepreneurial neighbors  within  the  quaint villages they love?

As Arn has discovered, to her delight, it’s the potential for a symbiotic relationship where everyone’s needs are being met. “They are incredible employees,” she says of her senior dream team at Horizon Books Cadillac. “Resilient. It’s amazing the details they pick up and do without asking.”

Three have experience as librarians, one has experience in the restaurant business, still another is a retired police officer from the Chicago Police Department.

That’s Laura Henry, who moved to downtown Cadillac from downtown Chicago 12 years  ago.  After  renovating her 120-year-old house, Henry started volunteering at the local elementary library, launching a “Reading Rivalry” competition for kids in Cadillac.  Arn recognized Henry’s pluck and quickly hired her. Having a seasoned cop sharing her knowledge is a boon: “We’re downtown and open late; there are real-world situations that crop up and they can handle those,” Arn notes, adding, “When you’re hired on, not only are you helping customers, you’re also doing the computer system, you’re a barista, you’re a janitor.”

She says her senior staff bring flexibility in scheduling, as none of them work full time.

“Everyone is really good at taking care of everyone else,” explains Carla Choponis, of their willingness to cover for coworkers. Choponis previously worked in Pine River Schools in  the computer lab and the library. “This was just a perfect place for a retirement job, two or three days a week.”

The benefits for Choponis are concrete. “I live way out in the country, so it’s nice to come in and see people. The more you keep busy, the better you’re going to be health-wise.”

Retirees working at a small business

Photo by Dave Weidner

What’s more, the bookstore gig still allows for a rich, full life says Vlasta Bovee, who lives near the ski hill Caberfae Peaks. The store’s only octogenarian employee moved from Colorado 17 years ago and, because she adores downhill skiing, commits to  just  one  day  a  week  at  the  bookstore. “She’s  my  Saturday  girl,” says Arn. “I never have to worry.”

Horizon ladies don’t hesitate to share their gifts with the community: They lead story hours. The walls are covered with loaner pieces from Henry’s quilting club. Choponis parlays her passion for collecting teapots and teacups into a ticketed tea party, held each spring. It’s an immense labor of love done by the entire staff who serve their guests from their own china.

Tea time is a beloved locals’ event, but Arn says the staff also shine as small-town ambassadors to the seasonal influx of visitors to Cadillac’s lakes and campgrounds. Bovee loves that people on vacation seek out the bookstore and is delighted to help kids and young adults find their summer reads. Choponis considers it a badge of honor that the local bookstore is not a dying breed in Cadillac: “With  big  bookstores  closing  down,  even ones in the big cities, we hear often, ‘It’s such a nice bookstore. There isn’t one close to me…’ ”

Arn has witnessed how a small cadre of retirees has meant stability  and  success  for  staffing. But even one senior community member deciding to roll up their sleeves can move the needle for a small business. In Leelanau County and other desirable vacation destinations, the shortage of affordable homes and long-term rental options adds to the struggle of finding and retaining employees.

Nevertheless, small business owners must make hay when the sun shines.

Case in point, Leelanau County’s Tom and Kathleen Koch who raise Mangalitsa pigs, poultry, eggs and vegetables at their 14-acre homestead and also operate the Polish Art  Center boutique in the village of Cedar, the region’s unofficial Polka Capital, and home of the annual Polka Fest.

Last spring, after hearing countless customers ask where the Polish restaurant is in town, the Kochs planned to open their farm-to-table Polish food truck starting Memorial Day weekend. With one hitch. They needed a dependable person to take food orders while Kathleen ran the store and Tom helmed the stoves and grill.

Retirees working at a small business

Photo by Dave Weidner

Then, like kismet, Jane Sapardanis, a Maple City resident and retiree, popped into the Polish gift shop. “They were telling me about the food truck and getting all their ducks in a row. My son-in-law Eric was with me, and said, ‘You are looking at the right person to help you.’ ”

Indeed, Sapardanis ran a successful casual eatery in Grand Blanc, Shap’s Family Restaurant, for 15 years.

Kathleen Koch hired her on the spot, grateful to then focus on other aspects of launching the business. The buoying feeling was mutual, says Sapardanis, “I thought, wow, she’s hiring me and knows I am a certain age. I felt very relieved. I was in need of a job and an income boost.”

Sapardanis was with Polish Countryside Kitchen from opening day, through all the exciting growing pains. Soon folks were driving from miles away for the Kochs’ old-country recipes:  pickle soup, cabbage rolls, garden cucumber salad with dill, sausages and pierogi sizzled on the grill. The alleyway was delightfully transformed with garden lights and garland, the picnic tables held fresh-cut flowers. Sapardanis’s smile was a constant welcome in the window.

“I was blown away by the bravery of Kathleen and Tom doing this,” she says. “Any restaurant business is a huge undertaking … I knew what was ahead. Luckily, they are people  with open minds, so I could say, ‘Let’s try it this way.’ There were  moments we were all overwhelmed, but they could quickly move on—a healthy attitude in that environment.”

Sapardanis  adds, “I was glad to tap back into what was a very exciting part of my life. It was beautiful to watch the business bloom, and I was so happy to be a part of it.”

The Kochs saw firsthand the assets an older workforce brings to a burgeoning business. So, what would it take for Northern Michigan to be a trailblazer in this trend?

It could be as simple as stepping up to work for a neighbor you admire, or a retail or hospitality business you already frequent, says Sapardanis.

Sapardanis also encourages curious seniors who aren’t currently working but are seeking a job to check out AARP’s Senior Community Service Employment Program (see “Retirees at Work,” right).

The Polish Countryside Kitchen food truck will be back full throttle this spring, and Sapardanis hopes to reprise her gig.

“Every single person who came to the truck had a smile on their face. They’d say, ‘My grandmother made food just like this,’ and it would bring back all these sentimental feelings.” She adds, “I am 74 years old and a part of something brand new and exciting with people who are amazingly smart and talented. I’m so grateful they took a chance on me. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

Retirees working at a small business

Photo by Dave Weidner

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner