On a sunny weekday morning before Rhonda Smith opened her store in downtown Brainerd, a well-wisher was already peeking in the main street windows.
Smith’s had a flood of such visitors. With obvious concern they ask how she is doing and wish her well on her upcoming move and subsequent plan to close two long-time Laurel Street businesses.
“There’s a lot of shock. A lot of tears. It was obviously a tough decision for us,” Smith said as she looked around the Bead Box store she and her husband Brian spent hours renovating and returning to its vintage roots, right up to the pressed tin ceiling overhead. “I felt like I was going to be here forever, I really did.”
It’s something Smith said her husband has embraced during the years as the chief boiler engineer saw his job leave with Potlatch’s closing and went through it again after Missota Paper Co. ended. Brian Smith then joined his wife in their Downtown Art and Frame business, a mainstay in the solid former bank building at the corner of Laurel and Seventh streets.
The couple expanded their business venture to include the Bead Box across the street, enjoying the task of restoring the interior of the former five and dime store in the 1909 building.
Smith said her husband supported her passion for both stores, 18 years with Downtown Art and Frame and 12 years with the Bead Box, first in Nisswa and then in Brainerd.
For the past year, Brian Smith has been working in the Fargo, N.D., area. The ripple effect of the North Dakota oil field boom is creating more activity in the Fargo area and Rhonda Smith said her husband was being asked to make a commitment there. He enjoyed the challenge of being a problem solver as he worked in the boiler industry.
“It was my turn to support him,” she said.
So they decided to close both stores by the end of the year and make the move to North Dakota. Smith isn’t sure what she’ll do yet, although she doesn’t plan to open a retail store.
A colored pencil artist who enjoys watercolor painting, as well as the creativity in jewelry making, Smith didn’t have much energy for her own art projects after a full work day. With the move, she hopes that will be one of the changes. The future, she said, is full of options.
With the recent closing announcement, now all the more real with store closing signs in the Bead Box windows, people may think the economy was a player in the decision.
“That is not the issue why we are closing,” Rhonda Smith said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with that.”
The economy brought new customers to the stores, she said. People who were changing how they thought of gifts and looked for ways to reduce spending, came in to make their own jewelry pieces or frame a child’s art work. Others come in armed with smartphones and Pinterest photos of items they want to make.
Downtown Brainerd has supporters and critics. Smith said a challenge persists in how to change a stigma that the downtown consists only of bars and a pawn shop as the other retail stores are seemingly forgotten in the conversation.
“I don’t know why that is,” Smith said. “If I knew the answer to that I might be able to fix that. It really is perplexing to me to why people say that. Maybe some day I’ll come up with the answer as to why that is.”
Reconstructing the downtown streetscape did bring more people interested in taking a second look, Smith said. But to get people to think of alternatives to the big box stores, she said downtown may need a sustained marketing campaign with joint effort.
“If you’re not going to invest in your own business, who is?” she said.
She said another question may be in how many liquor licenses are allowed downtown, or if those uses could be grouped into an entertainment district distinct from the retail side.
Smith pointed to support opportunities like the national Main Street Program, which started in Brainerd in 2007 but failed to flourish here. Smith said Main Street coordinators were more like chamber employees and city officials didn’t think it was needed.
Another option is the 3/50 Project, which encourages residents to buy from mom and pop businesses, supporting three by spending $50 a month with independent, locally owned brick and mortar shops.
Even spending $10 or $20 with those small businesses versus a big box retailer makes a difference, Smith said. A LookLocal iPhone app with the project helps people find those local stores that are supporters of the 3/50 Project.
Smith said she seeks out downtowns in other cities to see what they have to offer rather than just seeing the same big box enterprise.
To lose those shops with vestiges of the city’s history would be a sad thing, Smith said. “You lose the originality. You lose the specialties of what a mom and pop store can offer.”
When a framed print was too large to fit in a customer’s car, the Smiths delivered it and even helped put it up on the wall. They repaired costume jewelry that had more sentimental than monetary value. Between the two stores, the Smiths employ about six people.
They plan to keep the Downtown Art and Frame building, which they own. They lease the Bead Box from Ed Menk. After word got out about the plan to close the businesses, at least one serious offer came in to keep the Bead Box business alive.
After working long and hard to establish their businesses, Smith said they’d rather see someone carry the torch forward.
“It’s kind of like deciding who am I going to leave my child with,” she said. “I’d like to see them continue. If I could pass that on, I would like to see that.”
Smith knows what she’ll miss most in leaving — the people she’s met with many becoming extended family. Now as those people stop in to say goodbye, it’s been bittersweet.
“It’s nice to see we have made an impact on this community,” Smith said, adding it makes all the years of hard work worth it. “It’s nice to know what we’ve done is appreciated.”