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The Business News - January 29, 2007

Black River Falls store offers nostalgic shopping experience
General store offers warmth of pot-belly stove; goods ranging from toys to Amish products
By Stefanie Scott / The Business News Reporter


Visitors to The Merchant General Store are transported to a simpler time, one where people drank soda out of glass bottles, bought ingredients to do their own baking and the corner store provided all the day-to-day necessities.

Housed in a historic 1912 building, customers can shop from a variety of goods from toys to Amish-made products or visit while playing checkers near the pot-belly stove.

In the past, general stores were depended upon for food, supplies and socializing," said Darren Durman, who owns the business with wife Trish. The downtown Black River Falls shop is drawing business from nostalgic locals and tourists, as well as younger shoppers who consider it a novelty. "I am surprised how the kids - from little ones to teenagers - have been attracted to our store," Trish said. The youngsters are intrigued by the old-fashioned toys like the tin kaleidoscopes, paper dolls and Yo-Yos and the large selection of old-fashioned candy such as jawbreakers, Blackjack gum, licorice snaps and mallow cups - on shelves and in glass jars.

The downtown Black River Falls shop is drawing business from nostalgic locals and tourists, as well as younger shoppers who consider it a novelty. "I am surprised how the kids - from little ones to teenagers - have been attracted to our store," Trish said. They like coming in and see a variety of candy - they can buy it by the piece for the most part," Trish said.

When the couple sees the excitement of patron's faces when they bite into a piece or find an item they haven't seen for sale in decades, they know that going into business was the right move.

Darren Had business management experience with prior jobs and was general manager of a hotel and pizzeria. But he also had an interest in times gone by.

"Antiques has always been a little hobby and passion," he said. "My wife and I were compatible in that way. We always threw around ideas - that wouldn't it be neat to open an old-fashioned store."

Four years ago, they had the opportunity to buy the building, which got its start as the Locken Shoe Store. They took field trips to other general stores and researched the era of the 1850's to the 1950's and its architectural style. Then they refurbished the building; retaining the tin ceiling and wood floors.

"It was the very first commercial retail in America," Darren said.

The displays came from old stores or were reproductions of antique shop fixtures. Many of the counters and shelving were retained from the building, including the old cash register.

But due to the proliferation of supermarkets and big-box retailers, the Durmans decided to carry fewer items than a traditional general store.

The Merchant General Store sells household items and seasonal decor, locally made products such as candles, food and crafts, and regional food products featuring cranberry such as bread mixes.

McNess, a line of flavorings and seasonings sold door-to-door at the turn of the 20th century, has proven especially popular.

"A lot of people remember their grandmother having it," Darren said.

The business's sucess has exceeded both owner's expectations in both sales and enthusiasm from the community. They are celebrating four years in business in February and have seen growth annually.

"It's been rewarding because people say the business feels like home and helps them reminisce," Darren said.

While it may seem backward, the store that focuses on products and ambiance of the past has experienced tremendous growth and repeat business through online sales at www.themerchantgeneralstore.com . People often do a search for one of the rare products the store carries and they get directed to the web site, Darren said.

The shop's unique offerings have also built a tourist following, especially because of its proximity to the interstate. There have been bus tours that have made the store a stop and the Durmans hope to build that business in the future.

"People have told others we're the place to stop," he said.

The Durmans are hoping their sucess will help contribute to a revitalization of the downtown, drawing more businesses that will continue to beautification process. Darren serves as president of the Black River Falls Downtown Association and is active in the area's chamber of commerce.

The couple have sold antiques throughout the store and six months after opening the store, they made the basement into an antique shop. "Almost on a daily basis we have people coming in asking if we take antiques in a consignment basis," he said.

The demand has led the Durmans to purchase the building next door, which will provide 4,000-square-feet on the main floor and potential to renovate ther basement. They will rent space to antiques and collectibles dealers and take on consignment pieces for individuals.

Stroll Down Memory Lane is expected to open this spring.

"There's been good response from the community," Trish said. "But there's still some locals that don't even know we're here. We're just trying to get the word out and trying to keep the locals shopping here, too."

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