Competition from bigger retailers and foreign manufacturers is forcing the owner of Red Wing Pottery to find a buyer for the iconic stoneware company or shut it down by year's end.
The business can't continue to operate through another slow winter tourist season, said Scott Gillmer, who's run his family-owned company for 22 years.
"Our business needs to evolve and the Gillmer family, my family, is not going to be the family that continues it into the next evolution," he said. "We are hoping to step away and have somebody else come in and operate this iconic old company and keep it moving forward."
Red Wing Pottery got its start in the 1860s, just a few years after Red Wing, Minn., incorporated as a city. German immigrants sold salt-glazed pots in the river town, and the stoneware was a hit. Gillmer's grandfather bought the company in 1967 and shifted its focus from mass manufacturing pottery to retail sales.
The company grew in good times. It operates a 32,000 square foot facility in Red Wing popular with tourists from around the region. Collectors are still willing to pay well -- early salt-glazed pieces can sell for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars.
In recent years, though, the company struggled financially.
"We have not been profitable," said Gillmer, 49, the company's third-generation owner. "Our current business model is primarily retail gift shops, and as we all know, independent retail gift shops are struggling these days."
Gillmer says there are two interested buyers, both from the Red Wing area. He's confident somebody will continue the tradition.
"I don't think they'll keep it the same because the current business model doesn't work in the current marketplace," he said. "But there is a love and a passion for this iconic old company. So I'm confident that somebody will want to carry that forward."
That'll be important for the potters and artisans who work at the company. The business currently employs 13 full-time and 20 part-time workers. And many of them have been with the company for decades.
Red Wing Pottery is part of the region's identity, said Goodhue County Historical Society Director Amy Nelson.
"It's sort of a sense of community loss because that's the connection that a lot of tourists have with this area," she said. "It's coming here and connecting with that pottery of the past, and being able to rent that bike and go up the trails and meander around town, so it's kind of sad."
No matter the outcome, stepping away from the business will be hard personally, Gillmer added. "It's been something weighing heavily on me the last couple of years when I realized the changing marketplace," he said. "I didn't come to that decision easily or quickly."