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Bemidji Ben Franklin closes; marks end of dime store era

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John Lutz outside his Bemidji Ben Franklin store.
John Lutz stood outside his Bemidji Ben Franklin store which is closing, forced under by a new Hobby Lobby. It's his seventh Ben Franklin lost to box retail stores.
John Enger | MPR News

There aren't that many Ben Franklin stores left. The five and dime empire that once stood 2,500 stores strong has fallen to just 125. In a few weeks, it will lose one more.

  Bemidji's Ben Franklin is going out of business.  

"When we really looked at it, we couldn't make it work," said store owner John Lutz.

  Revenue at the downtown Ben Franklin dropped by one-third over the summer, and Lutz said the reason isn't hard to pinpoint.

  "It's Hobby Lobby," he said.

  As locals picked over 20 percent-off yarn and picture frames, Lutz leaned in a chair in a small back office. He didn't seem surprised about the loss of his business. But he's been the owner of seven Ben Franklins that went under after a big box retailer came to town.

  Lutz bought his first Ben Franklin franchise in 1976 in Carthage, New York. He was young and ambitious, looking to strike out on his own after 14 years as a store manager for W. T. Grant.

  "I sold the house, traded in my retirement, my father loaned me $20,000," he said. "And I bought into Ben Franklin."

  And for a while the gamble paid off. He said the store raked in $560,000 its first year, which was $160,000 over projections, and a lot of money in 1976. Two years in, a 60,000-square-foot Ames Department Store came to town. Lutz still remembers when the signs showed up.

  "My sales got killed," he said. "I was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was so heartbreaking."

  Lutz packed up and moved operations to a mall in the small town of Alexandria Bay, New York.

  "I ended up with a divorce from the stress of it all," he said, "but the store took off."

  The Alexandria Bay Ben Franklin did so well he expanded to Rome, New York. He got remarried, had children. He bought a house. Then a popular chain of drug stores moved in.

  As business in Alexandria Bay fell, Rome got its first Walmart. By 1996, Lutz was riding the edge of bankruptcy yet again, looking for a place where Ben Franklin might be safe from the spread of large-scale retailers.

   

Ben Franklin in Minnesota: Every small town had one

  Lutz said Ben Franklin corporate told him Minnesota was that safe place. Upper-level management showed him a half dozen available stores in small Minnesota towns. Lutz bought an established store in Park Rapids and moved his family.

Ben Franklin store, likely in Hopkins
A Ben Franklin store, likely in Hopkins, Minn., photographed in May 1950.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

  If he had talked to historian Denis Gardner, he might have gone somewhere else. In the early 1990s a research job had Gardner driving all over the state.

     "That's when Walmart and Target really started spreading into northern Minnesota," said Gardner, who is now a National Register historian for the Minnesota Historical Society. "That's when the Ben Franklins went away. It seemed almost inevitable."

  The Ben Franklin chain was founded in 1927, and did particularly well in small rural communities. Gardner described them as a sort of downtown nucleus — a place you could get hardware and toys and some clothing.

  As a child, his grandmother took him to the Grand Rapids Ben Franklin to buy squirt guns.

  "Every small town had one for a while," he said.

  But as Gardner drove through all those small northern towns for work, he watched the little five and dimes dry up and close.

  It was at exactly this time Lutz brought his family to Minnesota.

  "I'm here three months," Lutz said, "and Ben Franklin corporate goes bankrupt. They shut down all their warehouses. They sell off all their assets."  

  As a franchise owner, Lutz chose the merchandise in each of his stores, but ordered it from Ben Franklin warehouses through the corporate structure. When the company went under, he found himself looking for new suppliers, and paying $2,500 a year in naming rights to a promotions company out of Wisconsin.

  He tried to make the best of it. He lined up new suppliers, and as all those little rural stores went under, he bought them.

  He picked up Ben Franklin stores in Wadena, Detroit Lakes, Walker, and finally Bemidji in 2010. One by one, he saw them fail and either closed them up, or sold. Lutz still has the Park Rapids store, but said it's just scraping by.  

"I just couldn't take the pressure," he said.

  In April, Hobby Lobby opened a massive new store in uptown Bemidji. It has all the products carried by Ben Franklin for lower prices. It has more employees with better pay. Hobby Lobby, Lutz said means the end of Ben Franklin.  

  For Gardner, that's a loss — not to the community's ability to buy squirt guns and craft supplies, but to a certain sort of life experience.

  "The stores always had a certain smell," he said, "from the old wood floors and the old paint on the walls. You got the sense it had served generations before you."

  That old Ben Franklin smell, Gardner said, brings back memories of shopping trips with his grandmother. One day many years from now Walmart might carry the same nostalgia, but Gardener doesn't think so.

  "People loved Ben Franklin," Lutz said as a price check crackled over the PA system. "The old five and dime. Well, these days nothing's a nickel."  

All told, Lutz followed Ben Franklin through seven failed stores, two near bankruptcies and one divorce. He's 77 now. He's tired, but can't sell his last store in Park Rapids because it's his only retirement policy.

  When asked why after so many struggles he stuck with a shrinking brand of variety stores, he laughed.

  "It's like a football player trying to retire," he said. "It's your self worth."