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Rural Dispatches is a yearlong series about the challenges and opportunities in Minnesota’s small towns, made possible by a grant from the Blandin Foundation.

Carving out space in a big-box world: Small-town retailers find their niche

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Little Sister’s Antiques in Cold Spring.

COLD SPRING, Minn. — In 2014, Lisa Hansen gave up her longtime job at an established business here and jumped full time into her passion: Little Sister’s Antiques, her one-woman shop along First Street in the center of town.

Besides selling old wares out of a brick building – appropriately rustic with chipping white paint, old ladders leaning against its walls – Hansen repurposes old furniture and makes rustic signs and jewelry.

“I am very content doing business here,” she said of her life in this town of 4,000, “but I work hard at it, too.”

While not a tourist trap, Cold Spring has what retail experts and business owners say are key ingredients to successful rural retailing: proximity to lakes country (and its wealthy cabin owners); shops that sell specialized products not easily found in mainstream stores; and a network of civic support.

A stroll through town reveals a cluster of popular shops and stores – quiet on a Thursday morning in October but bustling on weekends, especially during the fall and summer.

Around the corner from the antique shop, for instance, the well-known Cold Spring Bakery lures sweet-toothed travelers off of Highway 23. A few steps from the bakery, meanwhile, Trendsetters Boutique offers shoppers an eclectic array of purses, hats and other fashion accessories. And two blocks north, Third Street Brewhouse, a new brew pub attached to the historic Cold Spring brewery, plays host to community events and social hours.

The city also boasts an upscale grocer (which carries the bakery’s goods), a movie theater and an expanded farm cooperative.

Location, location, location …

Situated about 15 miles southwest of St. Cloud, Cold Spring is the largest of the three small Stearns County towns that make up the Rocori School District (Rockville and Richmond are the others). The town is in prime recreation country, tucked between the Horseshoe Chain of Lakes along the Sauk River, immediately to the south, and Garrison Keillor’s famed Lake Wobegon country of lakes and hamlets, to the north.

While the community has a few large employers, including the Gold’n Plump Poultry processor, the stone manufacturer Coldspring and the brewery, it retains some of the trappings of bedroom communities. Indeed, the city has no hospital and, not being a county seat, few government jobs. Many of its residents work in St. Cloud, which, of course, has Walmart, Target and the other mega-retailers that can suck consumers out of their own small towns.

Yet civic leaders say the retail sector in Cold Spring is as strong as it has been in two decades. A new development along Highway 23 includes a new home for the grocer, Teals, as well as Granite Community Bank and other service businesses.

“Cold Spring has done a great job of hanging on to its customers,” said Lisa Muenzhuber, who has owned Trendsetters Boutique for nine years. “It’s amazing how the town has been able to do that when St. Cloud and the big-box stores are so close.”

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Owner Lisa Muenzhuber in her Cold Spring store, Trendsetters Boutique.

Kim Johnson, a retail-merchandising professor at the University of Minnesota, has studied the impact of big-box stores on small-town retailers. What she learned, she said, is that many small towns with thriving retailer sectors have become “destinations” – in other words, places where people will spend a morning or an afternoon, knowing they can find good food, one-of-a-kind products – “the olive slicer, the orange peeler,” as she put it – and personable service, often in quaint settings.

Many of them are cabin owners, or simply weekend browsers, willing to spend money in a place that feels right.

“Why wouldn’t you want to shop in a store where the owner gets to know you – where the owner wants you to be there?” Johnson asked.

In 2013, according to University Extension, Stearns County generated about $945 million in taxable retail sales – about three-quarters in the adjacent cities of St. Cloud and Waite Park and the rest in towns spread throughout the county.

In this together

Hansen also makes some jewelry, but she tries not to sell the same kind of merchandise that is available at Trendsetters Boutique – partly for competitive reasons but mostly out of a spirit of cooperation. For one thing, she and Muenzhuber are friends.

“I don’t like to make people angry, and it is a small town!” Hansen said with a laugh.

Several Cold Spring businesses cross-promote their products; Red River Inn, for instance, offers $20 gift certificates to Trendsetters Boutique; the boutique, meanwhile, has sold Red River Inn gift certificates and displayed the restaurant’s card.

“We work together,” Hansen said, speaking broadly of the retailers in Cold Spring. “When people come in – perhaps they haven’t gone to the bakery or Trendsetters – they will ask what more is there to do, and I am always willing to send them in other directions depending on what their interests may be.”

'A stake in the ground'

Four years ago, Stacey Roberts and Gina Lieser opened The Happy Sol, a women’s clothing boutique in New London, a town of 1,300 near Green Lake, a popular summer destination in Kandiyohi County.

The women saw a need for a broader variety of women’s clothing than could be found in the Willmar area and opened their business in rental space in New London, which already had a home décor store and a quilt shop, two anchors that had long drawn customers to the downtown.

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The sign on The Happy Sol and The Rugged Sun, clothing stores in New London.

Roberts and Lieser have since torn down an abandoned building, built their own shop in its place and added a second part to their business – The Rugged Sun, a clothing line for men.

“We are in a town that is on the cusp of moving in this exciting direction, and we hoped that if we built this it would kind of be a sign – a stake in the ground – that we are willing to invest in this business and in this community that is going places,” Lieser said.

The clothing shops are part of a network of New London businesses that meet monthly and put on six annual themed events, including this year’s Ladies Night Out, held Oct. 15, which involved 15 local businesses and drew perhaps 400 women to the town.

The women used “passports” to tour the businesses, which included two restaurants, a winery and a new brew pub. Of the business connections, Lieser said: “We all have a good relationship and we work together, but it takes work.”

Tools of the trade

Courtesy of Gina Lieser and Stacey Roberts
Gina Lieser, left, and Stacey Roberts, right, pictured at their clothing business in New London.

Personal service has long been the retailer’s calling card – especially for small-town merchants who have the luxury of getting to know their customers, in some cases because they are also their neighbors or friends. But digital tools, especially social media, are increasingly becoming a part of the retail scene.

The Happy Sol, Little Sister’s Antiques and Trendsetters Boutique, for instance, all use Facebook pages to promote special events and offerings. The Happy Sol, meanwhile, sells a limited amount of merchandise on its company website.

Lieser said another ingredient has been a part of New London’s retail development: a vibrant local arts scene, an area of rural vitality that MinnPost will explore later in Rural Dispatches.

This summer, the city held its 17th annual music festival, featuring a jazz combo, a Celtic band and other acts. A theater company also put on a musical on the shore of Mill Pond in the heart of New London, with the audience in canoes and kayaks – paddling from scene to scene.

All of that activity means more interest in the community and what it has to offer. “It adds a whole other dimension to our town,” Lieser said.

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