Howard Ballein, co-founder of the popular East Lansing student bookstore, died Friday at the age of 87.
Generations of Michigan State University students knew Ballein, or Mr. SBS, and his wife, Vivian, from their Grand River bookstore, where they exclusively employed students after opening in 1960.
Originally a 2,000 square foot store, the Student Book Store now occupies 42,000 square feet on the 400 block of Grand River, selling MSU clothing, souvenirs, school supplies and textbooks.
“He ran the bookstore when we started,” Vivian said. “There were two employees: us and a part-time student who took care of it when I was at home watching the children. As the university grew, we grew.
Born in 1934 in Hillsboro, Ohio, Howard was one of nine children, his son Brad said. Originally intending to become a veterinarian, he studied animal science at The Ohio State University, where he worked part-time at the student library.
When his sensitivity to blood got in the way of a career with animals, he was hired full-time at the bookstore, where he discovered a love for shopping on campus.
It was also at OSU that Howard met Vivian. The two were married for 67 years until Howard’s death.
The couple opened their own boutique in East Lansing after visiting the MSU campus. The store was never officially affiliated with the university, but became a go-to place among students for textbooks, supplies, and part-time jobs.
“You’re talking about fourth-generation people who worked here, people who met their future spouse together and have kids here,” Brad said. “They were all hustling buying books here.”
Brad and his brother, Greg, explored careers outside of SBS, but found themselves in the family business. At one point, eight family members worked together at the store, Brad said.
When the student-employees worked the bulk of the shifts, Howard still came by every day. In the 60s and 70s, he was at the store every morning when it opened.
That changed when Howard retired in 2013 at the age of 78. But Brad continued to pass messages from clients to his father.
The store’s stamina amazed the two brothers, who now run the business.
“This destination, to be able to survive the pandemic and everything, makes it a place people want to go,” Brad said. “They met their best friends here.”
The COVID-19 pandemic hurt the business in the 2020-21 school year, when only a fraction of students lived and studied on campus. But now that the students are coming back in full force, things have started to pick up again, the brothers said.
The pandemic has also hurt the family personally.
Howard had spent his last years at Willows, an assisted living facility in Okemos. When the pandemic hit, his health declined sharply. He had knee pain and used a wheelchair, and needed an oxygen tank to breathe.
Visiting restrictions at the Willows meant that Vivian and Howard couldn’t see each other as often as they used to.
“They were never apart for more than a few days and they did everything together,” Brad said. “It was difficult for them to be separated. They did things in the car, but there was no physical contact.”
Howard’s love for his family extended to his grandchildren. He made it a point to attend all of his grandchildren’s games and performances when he could, and even scuba-dived with them in the Caribbean.
“He always spent time with his family, that’s what he wanted to do,” Greg said. “He gave us time and was the glue that kept the family together as we grew up. He threw dinner parties that we couldn’t miss. I miss him.”
The brothers said they would remember Howard for his generosity to East Lansing and MSU, where he served on various boards and commissions over the years.
“What strikes me the most is that he was generous, kind and a decent man,” Greg said. “If we could be half the man my father was, we’d be great men.”
Howard is survived by his wife, Vivian, his children Brad, Greg and Pam and several grandchildren. The family is planning a private ceremony in Delta Township. A public screening is planned at the People’s Church at a later date.