What Was I Thinking?Mar 01, 2021 09:30AM ● By Gayle Morrow
Like many of us, Stephanie Pawlowski thought the COVID-19 pandemic would be over by summer—the summer of 2020, that is. It wasn’t, it still isn’t, and business for this new business owner has been spotty, but Stephanie has not been deterred. At least not that much.
“Right now is kind of an odd time, between COVID, the election, and tax time coming up, but the customers I’ve had have been great,” says the smiling woman who started planning Tioga Notary when the pandemic hit, and finally opened her door just after the new year.
What exactly does a notary do? It varies from state to state, but the basic work is verifying identity.
“It is a common misconception that notaries ‘make things legal,’” Stephanie says. That’s not really the case. In Pennsylvania, most notary work is for vehicle titles and tags, which means being an “agent” for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. But other sorts of official and legal documents need identities and signatures to be verified—that is, someone has to make sure you are who you say you are.
Stephanie grew up in the Hills Creek area and graduated from Wellsboro High School, then moved to coastal North Carolina where she lived with her husband and son up until about a year ago, when they decided to return to Tioga County.
“I’m happy to be back,” she says. “I miss the warm weather and the beaches, but there is something spectacular about the mountains and this place we call home.”
And, being “back” seemed to signal that it was the right time to pursue a dream—pandemic or no pandemic—to have her own business doing something she liked. Stephanie explains that she had worked for other notaries/PennDOT agents in the area before she had relocated south, was a notary in North Carolina, and wanted to get back at it again.
“We looked at this building (26 Tioga Street/Route 287, Tioga, formerly a State Farm Insurance office) before COVID hit,” she says. She and her husband ultimately made the decision to purchase it and the adjacent lot (ideas for that space are percolating, so stay tuned), and then the planning began.
“All last year I was really just trying to focus on my plan of how to do this,” Stephanie says. After the initial COVID lockdown in the spring, two area notaries retired. She then spoke with a few others, who helped her determine there was indeed a need, then “started my checklist and started checking those little boxes off.”
It was somewhat daunting at times.
“So many of the people I had to go through were working remotely,” she says, and, as anyone who had business to conduct with a state or federal agency during that time knows, some offices were not open at all. “There’s lots you have to do to become an agent for PennDOT. Someone has to come out to inspect your building.”
She sighs a little but is still smiling.
“They don’t make it easy,” she continues, but adds that she understands why—all those license plates and all that official paperwork needs to be secure.
As for how a regular person becomes a notary person, Stephanie explains that in Pennsylvania there are specific courses to take, and then a test (she took hers in Port Allegheny) at a “proctored location,” meaning the test-taker is in a room, alone, but observed on closed-circuit television. She confesses modestly that she is a good test-taker, and didn’t find it particularly difficult. Her notary term is good for four years, and she’ll have to take a renewal course when it’s time to re-up.
Stephanie had planned to open January 1, but there was a problem with getting her supply of license plates in time for that target date. So, “as soon as I got the plates, I opened,” she says. That was January 11. She notes that “there is a cost associated with getting the plates.”
“There are fees associated with everything,” she laughs.
She’d been in the Middlebury Fire Department until she left the area, and lived near a military base in North Carolina, and so feels it’s important to help soldiers, first responders, and police with their costs when she can—thus, a 10 percent discount on her fees for those folks.
“In general, I’m very happy I’ve done this,” Stephanie says. “It was kind of decades in the making, and I’m happy it has finally come to fruition. I’ve always enjoyed this type of work.” But she admits she’s asked herself that “Oh my goodness, what have you done?” question, and has gotten it from others as well.
“People did ask me ‘Why do you think it’s a good idea to do this now?’ I think it is important for us all to realize our potential and reach for our goals. If someone would like to start a small business, especially in the middle of a pandemic, I would urge them to prepare themselves for multiple obstacles and in general be prepared to deal with rejection. I think obstacles and rejection go hand in hand with business ownership. It’s just important to keep a positive outlook when you hit the bumps in the road.”
Stephanie describes her business hours as “a little wonky right now,” as she’s trying to see what the community needs. Tioga Notary is open Thursday and Friday from noon until 8 p.m., and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. She lives close enough to be at the office in a matter of minutes, so folks are welcome to call her business cell at (570) 234-0555, or the business land line at (570) 625-0123. If you do stop in, be sure to ask her about the amazing and colorful acrylic paintings hanging on her office walls. She’ll be glad to tell you about the artists—her son and her nephews.