Jenn’s Copies will celebrate 30 years of business on the Drag this October with little fanfare but many requests for color copies. Jenn herself, full name Jennifer Hillhouse, couldn’t be prouder, fanfare or not. Although students might imagine the woman behind the efficient and compact chain of copy stores to be a one-dimensional character, she’s as bold and memorable as the oversized awning that tops her North location. And when Jenn tells the admirable story of the little shop on Guadalupe Street, she makes making copies downright interesting.
Jenn’s father bought the store, at the time part of an AlphaGraphics franchise, in 1982. Jenn started working the register at the age of 12.
“I made $2.75 and hour, and I felt rich,” Jenn said. At the counter, her father taught both her and her sister to count back change the old-fashioned way: with math.
“When my sister and I would train at the cash register, I would always give back too little change while my sister always gave back too much,” she said. Jenn’s stingy math prompted her father to joke that she had the mind for business in the family. Jenn’s math improved substantially, but her father was right about her mind for business. In 1992, Jenn graduated from UT with a degree in international business and a minor in finance. That same year, her father bought out the AlphaGraphics franchise and renamed it after his eldest daughter.
Jenn said it is possible the name change was an unsubtle hint from her father about taking over the family business. If it was, Jenn missed it. Immediately after college, Jenn went corporate. She took off for Germany and then Singapore, where she worked as a logistics consultant for Alfred Kaercher GmbH & Co., a manufacturer of cleaning equipment. “I was probably one of the youngest middle managers ever when I transferred to Singapore,” Jenn said. “It was an amazing experience ... I felt that my success in the corporate world was based solely on the work ethic I learned from my parents.”
But five-and-a-half years into the job, the currency crisis of ‘97, the end of her lease in Singapore and her sister’s marriage all combined to persuade Jenn to move back to the United States and work for her father. Back in Austin, her father encouraged her to look at her options.
One of those options, it turned out, was reconnecting with her future husband. James Dobbins Hillhouse, known as Dobbins, was an employee of Jenn’s father who Jenn had known in passing in college. In what Jenn suspects was a matchmaking attempt, her father sent her and Dobbins on a business trip to a regional software conference. The two fell hard.
Fast-forward more than a decade: Jenn and Dobbins have two children and two copy shops. Upon her father’s retirement in 2003, Jenn began the process of buying out her father’s only remaining location at the intersection of 22nd and Guadalupe streets through a sweat equity agreement. Two years later, she and her husband opened the North location on Dean Keeton Drive with only $20,000. When they couldn’t even afford the sign to advertise their new storefront, Dobbins painted Jenn’s name on a wooden shingle.
These days, both of Jenn’s storefronts have legitimate signage. Dobbins runs the South store and Jenn the North. Although they “run [the] business as a team,” and work only a few blocks apart, Jenn still blushed and admitted, “The hardest part is that we have to split up every day. We always say to each other, ‘I wish you were in my store!’”
Although her prices haven’t changed in nearly 30 years — Jenn’s Copies still charges six cents a sheet for self-service copies — the store does well, especially by students. Jenn recently found a way to reduce copyright costs for students by petitioning to use the University’s Academic copyright license, a blanket copyright license that allows the University to use certain intellectual property free of charge. To her knowledge, Jenn’s is the first outside course-packet provider to integrate with the University’s license.
“This was the first semester that we had course packets that went for $22 instead of $60,” Jenn said. “It’s not all of them, but it’s some of them.”
A quiet, final testament to Jenn’s love for the business and the students that patronize it sits just to the left of her cash register: cans of Coca-Colas priced at 50 cents.
“We have the cheapest Coke on campus,” Jenn said. Why? Jenn “remember[s] what it’s like to be a broke college student, too.”
Printed on Wednesday, September 26, 2012 as: Jenn's family business celebrates 30 years on Drag