A Good Age: You’re never too old to start a new chapter
Betsey Detwiler was in the shower one morning when she thought, “I’ve really got to think about what I’m going to do when I grow up.”
Betsey is 73, and she laughs when she tells the story.
“Suddenly I stopped and said, ‘Betsey! You are grown up! This is it. You can’t choose another career now.’ But actually, I can’t think of anything I’d enjoy doing more.”
The anecdote is a clue to what makes this warm, outgoing senior tick. She’s a wonderful example of non-retirement – someone in their 50s who ends one career and begins another, drawing on a childhood interest or lifelong passion.
As a girl in East Bridgewater, she loved reading and at night often hid under the covers with a flashlight to finish her latest adventure.
After she won a scholarship and graduated from Wellesley College in 1956 with a major in zoology, she worked in medical research, married, raised five sons, then returned to school and became a teacher. With a master’s degree in language development and certification in learning disabilities, she taught in Hingham and at Thayer Academy in Braintree.
At 55, she decided to retire from teaching and open an independent bookstore in Cohasset. “I wanted to make a beautiful space for people, full of other people who loved books – a community place,” she says.
Eighteen years later, the bookstore, Buttonwood Books & Toys, is still going strong at a time when independents are an endangered species.
To survive, Detwiler has moved, expanded and continually comes up with creative ways to attract customers. She works with local libraries, churches and historical groups to hold events at which authors speak; some are organized around lunches or light suppers.
“You have to do that – make connections in the community with other organizations,” she says. “When we opened the store, it was easy to get people out to children’s events, but now children have so many activities.
“Believe me, it’s hard – the large chains and online sellers sometimes charge less for a book than I pay to buy it wholesale,” she says.
She speaks warmly of her staff and credits much of her success to their loyal and skilled help.
Ten years ago, Buttonwood Books & Toys moved to a new store in Shaw’s Plaza on Route 3A. Detwiler worked with a designer to create comfortable sections with an easy flow from one area to another: toys, the reading corner, greeting cards (she picks every one), herself), even a train on a track in the back. She had the ceiling lowered for a cozier atmosphere and chose lighting that was warm.
Detwiler and her husband, Bob, 78, a stock broker, 78, have lived for 42 years in a 362-year-old antique house (built in 1645) in Norwell Center where they raised their five sons, now ages 38 to 48. Christopher, who is mentally challenged, lives with them and attends a sheltered workshop at Road to Responsibility in Pembroke. Bob Detwiler helped launch and finance the nonprofit program.
Two of her other sons, Andrew and Peter, live in Scituate; and Jonathan and Jefferson are in Norwell. She also has four daughters-in-law, whom she says, “I love dearly and count among my best friends,” and eight grandchildren she sees frequently.
In the side yard of their two-acre property is a buttonwood tree, a sycamore, which shelters the house and is so large it takes three people to encircle it with their arms. It symbolizes the tree of life and knowledge, and is where the idea for the name of her store came from when she opened it in October 1989.
The store opening in October 1989 came during an especially hectic period. There were down-to-the-wire store renovations, wall cases and tables sitting in a barn; a son was getting married; an elderly aunt fell and broke her hip; another son had an emergency appendectomy right after he and his pregnant wife returned from Ghana; their African dog bit a relative; the family boat sank; and the new baby arrived. “After all that family excitement, running a business seemed easy,” Detwiler jokes.
Detwiler and her husband sing in the choir at First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell, where they have been members for 48 years. Bob Detwiler, who served 12 years on the Norwell School Committee, sings baritone in the Fine Arts Chorale in Weymouth, and they have taken four singing trips to Europe with the chorale. She served as local chapter president for the League of Women Voters and the American Field Service student exchange program. They’ve also had four AFS students from Brazil, Uruguay, Finland and France live with them for a year in the 1980s and 1990s, and this summer a young Hungarian friend whom they met through their partner church program is living with them.
On Sept. 28, they will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Although the couple met at a Greater Boston Young Republican Club in the 1950s, she says that time and seeing the world have made her more liberal.
“We’ve kind of changed stripes,” she says. The couple support gay marriage and are active in civil rights issues.
“I grew up as a third-generation Unitarian, and I believe that what the message of Jesus is all about is one of acceptance and inclusion.”
Despite the David-against-Goliath quality of a small, independent bookstore, she loves the challenge.
“It’s been a good life – and family is first, isn’t it? My family is really my joy.”
On the Web: To see Betsey Detwiler’s bookstore, go to PatriotLedger.com and click on MultiMedia.
Reporter Sue Scheible can be reached at 617-786-7044, by mail at The Patriot Ledger, Box 699159, Quincy, MA 02269-9159 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.