Reprinted from the Star Tribune, February 16, 2002 (Variety section, page 1E)
By Robert Franklin; Staff Writer
The potatoes and onions rest in bins below the drill bits and screwdrivers, near the rental videos. Earrings are displayed near the snack crackers, and the key-making machine and moccasins are kitty-corner from the bath towels and cake mixes.
Here, near the front door, is nearly everything you need for the outdoors - sweatshirts, picnic coolers and, oh, yes, Middle River greeting cards to send home. Along with a kerosene lamp and, for just $42.39, a new but old-fashioned pitcher pump for the hunting cabin.
This is Young's General Store, also old-fashioned, a third-generation family business that offers groceries, hardware, clothing, boots, over-the-counter drugs and dry goods, a place to drop off film and dry cleaning or maybe pick up lottery tickets and fishing licenses.
It's also a vanishing kind of store. "You tend to find them, obviously, in areas that are underserved by retail and [where] there's a fairly sparse population," said Buzz Anderson, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association, whose members have 2,000 stores. "It's sort of a dying thing."
Middle River has only about 320 residents and not much of a retail district, but Young's Store isn't dying.
Six employees, including four family members, keep it going every day, and it turns a profit, said Steve Holm, one of the family managers, although he declined to say by how much.
The store also keeps alive the spirit of Howard Young, who ran the place for 55 years until he died in 2000 at age 85.
Howard's picture hangs on one wall (along with that of his father, Henry, who had a pool hall and started the store about 1907). Alongside the cash register is a plaque given by the city of Middle River that recalls Howard's slogan: "If we don't have it, you don't need it."
The store no longer carries a few essential items, however. Gone are the gas pumps out front. And coffins no longer are sold out of a back room.
But there are seven rooms filled with merchandise, about 5,000 square feet in all. Holm showed off some of the rarer items - leather washers for water pumps, stovepipe reducers to connect pipes of different diameter, a vinegar barrel pump, felt shoes ("that's something you don't see very often," he noted).
And earwax candles. Just stick one end in your ear, light the other and it draws the wax out of your ear - if all goes well.
Things tucked away
Much of the merchandise is displayed on counters or hanging on every bit of wall space, but much of it isn't. "You have to be ready to help people, 'cause a lot of it's in drawers or tucked away where you wouldn't find it," said Holm, who married into the Young family and has been with the store since 1979.
On a recent day, Robert Nelson came in to find a specific bolt. Holm helped him find it - just past some boxes of spaghetti and through a doorway. Another customer, Dave Veselka, stopped for an electric knife for fileting fish. "Anything you want, you can find it at Young's Store," Veselka said.
Sharon Walton, accompanied by her dog, Abby, bought lottery tickets for a pool at work. Walton lives in Middle River, works for Marvin Windows and Doors in Warroad and shops in her hometown.
Middle River is on the main highway from Thief River Falls to Roseau and Warroad, and travelers often stop at Young's for things they'd have trouble finding elsewhere, Holm said.
Willow River store
About 50 miles south of Duluth, many travelers detour off Interstate Hwy. 35 to visit another surviving general store, Willow River Mercantile Co. The store, which celebrated its centennial last year, sells groceries, hardware, appliances and some clothing.
"Big box" discount stores have cut into the sales of clothing, footwear and items such as riding lawn mowers, said Bruce Bohaty, who co-owns the store with his father, Ed, who bought the place in 1951.
The store remains profitable and gets an increasing number of highway visitors, Bohaty said. "People are always looking for some place to stop, and they explore these little towns a little more."
Years ago, "every town had a mercantile or general store," he added. "A lot has changed, obviously. It's not getting any easier."
Seventeen miles east of Sandstone, Bev Vink and her husband run the 100-year-old Duxbury Store that has been in the family since 1929. In addition to groceries, clothing and other goods, it includes gasoline pumps, an old jukebox that plays '78s and a cafe that serves pies made from scratch, Vink said.
Anderson of the Retailers Association said that small-town stores present a challenge for owners.
"The smaller the store, the bigger the investment in terms of how much of their personal wealth they put into inventory," he said.
Anderson grew up working in the hardware and farm supply store run by his father, Elmer, in the southwestern Minnesota town of Hardwick. Elmer Anderson also sold seed corn and "stuff from just about every era of farming," his son said, but "people would come in as much for conversation as to buy something."
A good salesman
In Middle River, conversation was a specialty of Howard Young. He would offer visitors an apple or a candy bar, chat for a while and, eventually, watch them walk out with $100 worth of merchandise.
"He was a good salesman," said Bobbi Holm, Howard's daughter. Steve, her husband, added, "He had no hobbies or anything else. He just enjoyed visiting with people."
Today Bobbi and her sister, Patsy Young, own the store, and the Holms and Patsy manage it. The other regular workers are Howard's widow, Lorene, as well as Eleanor Larson and Rose Scramstad. Three Holm offspring also have put in time at the store.
"Six of us cover seven days," Steve Holm said, and with the store open at 7 a.m. weekdays, 7:30 or 8 on weekends, "it gets to be a lot of different things to do."
He added that living in Middle River is "a different lifestyle. It doesn't take the big salaries to enjoy things in life."
Holm is active in the local volunteer ambulance service and a community promotion club, and both Holms are active in their church. There's a theater group in town and duck hunting within a few miles outside it.
With two refuges nearby, Middle River calls itself the Goose Capital of Minnesota and puts on an annual Goose Festival that attracts about 4,000 people, Holm said.
Howard Young was suffering from congestive heart failure when the Goose Festival was held two autumns ago, but was so devoted to the store that he offered to come to work if needed. He died shortly after the festival was over, Holm said.
"He would have said, `Have the funeral and get back to work.' "
- Robert Franklin is at email@example.com.
Copyright 2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.
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