For the Brainerd-Baxter, big box, shop-until-you-drop crowd, Kmart really started it all.
Announcement of its closing last week after almost 25 years along Highway 210 stirred shoppers' memories and inspired reflection on how rapidly the retail shopping picture has changed in this region.
In 1978, I had just been hired as a reporter at the Dispatch but had not yet started work when the announcement came that a Kmart was coming to town. I stopped by the newsroom at the old Sixth Street location to talk with my new boss but he politely explained they were working on a huge story and gave me the bum's rush down the newsroom stairs.
It was a huge story. Banner headlines proclaimed the news in that afternoon's paper. I was so journalistically green that I didn't fully realize that late morning was not the best time to stop by the newsroom of a P.M. paper for a chat.
Before Kmart and the subsequent development of the Westgate Mall, there was only one mall in town -- The Brainerd Mall later renamed the East Brainerd Mall. Its big anchor stores were J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward. That venerable shopping mall has undergone a few changes and facelifts and reminds us that not all of the traffic goes north on Highway 371. The Crosslake, Breezy Point and Merrifield areas continue to grow and the BISYS office at the intersection of Highway 210 and Highway 25 brought increased traffic to the area.
There was no Mills Fleet Farm, no Target, no Wal-Mart, no Kohl's in 1978. Paul Bunyan was still the dominant presence at what old-timers still call the Paul Bunyan intersection of Highways 210 and 371.
In the pre-Kmart days, Harold's Club was the most popular restaurant west of the Mississippi. None of the banks, shops and restaurants that dot Baxter's landscape were on the drawing boards.
Kmart gave the Westgate Mall the jump-start it needed to be successful. It was where the Salvation Army bellringers and fiddlers usually set up their red kettle each Christmas season. In no time the Westgate Mall became a favorite location for area shoppers.
And in my family Kmart is remembered as the site where my visiting brother mercilessly teased my daughter and his two young daughters with candy one summer afternoon.
The grown-ups had made some vague promise to take the kids swimming at North Long Lake but as late afternoon approached the idea of hanging out at a hot and crowded beach was losing its appeal. To mollify the kids and allow us to relax on our deck at home, we concocted a scheme to run to Kmart and buy a Slip and Slide, a plastic contraption that the kids could douse with water.
My brother Bob led the parade of youngsters down the aisles of Kmart with the newly purchased Slip and Slide. Spirits were high. The kids were excited at the prospect of playing with a new water toy. The parents were happy to be staying home. That's when Bob decided to press his luck as we walked by an aisle display of treats.
"Hey, do you kids like candy?" he asked
"Yeah!" they all yelled in unison.
"Well, forget about it," he said gruffly as he walked to the cashier's stand.
MIKE O'ROURKE, associate editor, can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5860.
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