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S is for Specialty

GRAFTON, N.D. -- To Sue Grafton, author of the mystery novel series with titles that follow the alphabet, "S is for Silence." But in the city of Grafton, "S" is for shopping, especially during the holiday season. A full-page promotion in this wee...

Gladys Hillman
Gladys Hillman, owner of Hillman's Jewelry, talks this week about the challenges of operating a jewelry business in a small town in Cavalier, N.D. Hillman offers gift-wrapping services, wedding registry, high-end jewelry, fashion jewelry and a variety of other household decorating items. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

GRAFTON, N.D. -- To Sue Grafton, author of the mystery novel series with titles that follow the alphabet, "S is for Silence."

But in the city of Grafton, "S" is for shopping, especially during the holiday season.

A full-page promotion in this week's Walsh County Record spelled out the words in the headline "Christmas Shopping Extravaganza."

Each of the 29 letters is assigned to a reason for shopping in Grafton, from "A" for "automobile accessories" to "Z" for "zipping around town next summer on a scooter or moped," and plenty in between, all from local merchants.

Just the run-of-the mill merchandise? Try this for size.

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- "M" is for Miche Purses, a designer handbag available at Mary's Ladies Fashions.

- "P" is for Pendleton wool jackets at The Squire Shop.

They're specialty stores that are surviving in this community -- just a 40-minute drive from Grand Forks -- that has lost about 12 percent of its population since 2000. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the population at 3,978 in 2008, down from 4,516 in 2000.

"We have merchants who work hard at trying to give people a reason to shop at home, rather than driving to the malls in Grand Forks or Fargo," said Julius Wangler, executive director of the Red River Regional Council, which covers the northeastern North Dakota counties of Grand Forks, Nelson, Pembina and Walsh.

"We have to be in a niche," said Rita Amiot, The Squire Shop owner. "We're kind of known for our purses and accessories. We can't give the discount items like the box stores. We have to offer them a product that they know is finer. We're probably a dressier store, an occasion store."

The goal, she said, is finer fabrics and washability. She markets a lot of Canadian clothing lines, which she said are of higher quality than some of the overseas-made clothing offered in larger stores.

Amiot, who grew up in the Crookston area, has a marketing degree from UND. She started working at the store in 1976 and bought it in 1984. Her husband, Roger, taught in Grafton for 32 years and now is semi-retired.

The store is divided down the center -- women on the left, men on the right.

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Originally, The Squire Shop was a men's clothing store. Women's clothing was added in 1976. Today, the store also has formal wear, including tuxedo rentals and men's dress shoes, the latest product addition.

"Ladies wear was a very good move at the time," she said. "In a small town, diversification is a good thing."

Perseverance and long hours are vital, too, she said. That includes everything from marketing to cleaning.

Full service

She'll get no argument from Gladys Hillman, owner of Hillman's Jewelry in Cavalier, N.D.

Greemer and Gladys Hillman bought the store in 1967 from Clarence and Elaine McMurray. Greemer Hillman died in August 2008.

"We have the very finest jewelry," Gladys Hillman said, noting its selection of 14-carat jewelry. It also offers sterling and fashion jewelry, time pieces and gifts, as well as a bridal registry.

"In a small town, you have to be full service, too," she said. That includes free gift-wrapping and delivery service for bridal showers, weddings and other special events.

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The Squire Shop and Hillman's Jewelry also conduct their own fashion shows.

Amiot holds two major fashion shows annually, usually at a sit-down luncheon in town, with local residents modeling clothes and accessories. It also hosts other events, similar to open houses.

Hillman, Nancy Jensen, who has worked at the store for some 25 years, and other employees model jewelry and accessories whenever there's a call for it.

A month ago, they were asked to have a show during a Cavalier Chamber of Commerce breakfast for spouses or significant others of people working on the Alberta Clipper pipeline that is being built through the region. About 60 showed up.

"That turned out to be very good for us," she said. "The pipeline has been very good to us."

Amiot said local merchants have to work together, too.

In the mid-1990s, when Reyleck's Department Store in Grafton closed after 100 years in business, The Squire Shop and Mary's Ladies Fashions got together to decide how to fill the void with some of Reyleck's clothing lines, while trying to limit direct competition between each other.

They also compete with small rural discount department stores, such as Pamida and ALCO, larger stores such as Home of Economy and the mega stores, such as Wal-Mart.

"It's important to have those stores," said Wangler, the Regional Council director. "We also need these specialty stores."

Amy Hall, a Cavalier native who serves as community development specialist for the Regional Council, said outmigration is an issue throughout rural areas. Several local, state and federal programs are available to help new and existing businesses.

"I think Grafton has more jobs than the population indicates," Wangler said. "If everybody who worked in Grafton moved to Grafton, the population really would be growing."

Retirement looms

They wonder, though, what might happen as merchants such as Amiot and Hillman look to retirement.

It's happening throughout the region.

In Drayton, N.D., for example, Frabjous Originals will close its doors Dec. 15, owner Cheryl Gjevre said.

The company started in the late 1980s grew into a large women's casual clothing business with catalog sales and retail stores under the Frabjous name in Drayton, Grand Forks, Bismarck, Minot, St. Cloud, Minn., and Sioux Falls, S.D., and with shopping mall kiosks around the country.

The clothing features a custom, hand-stitched, needlework look.

"It was very unique," Gjevre said. "It really appealed to the older ladies, those 50 and above, those who had an appreciation for needlework."

At its peak, it employed nearly 20 full time in Drayton, along with 40 to 60 part-time seasonal workers to handle sales from the 1.4 million catalogs mailed out.

But business has waned since the early 2000s, Gjevre said.

The last retail store, in Drayton, closed last year.

She didn't try to sell the business.

"We really worked at it for a long time," she said. "But it's not the business it used to be. I didn't feel right to sell it to somebody."

Now, Gjevre is looking at retirement.

"I'm very open. I'm very excited about what might be coming. But I don't know what it is yet," she said. "I'm a very strong Christian. I just know I'm not going to sit in a rocking chair."

It's happening in Thief River Falls, too.

Deb Dahlen is closing the doors of her "More to Love" clothing store today. Originally opened 5½ years ago as a plus-size woman's apparel store, it later expanded to all sizes.

Dahlen, who also drives school and a city bus full time, wants to cut back on her hours as she considers retirement. She recently ran an advertisement in the Thief River Falls Times offering the store for sale. "Will sell very reasonable to keep it open," it read.

But she didn't find any takers.

"The economy's a little on the tough side," she said. "The fact is a lot of Thief River ladies go to Grand Forks to shop. The plan was to give it to my granddaughters in eight years, but I couldn't hold on that long."

"That has happened and it'll probably happen more so as time goes on," Wangler said. "Some businesses that have been around a long time are able to cultivate that tradition and find people to take them over. But some can't. And that's a challenge."

It seems that "R is for Retirement," and how rural communities deal with it on Main Street, is one economic mystery that still is being written.

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com .

Rita Amiot
The Squire Shop owner Rita Amiot talks about the variety of men's and women's apparel that she offers in her store in Grafton, N.D. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

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