End of the line for the “store for everyone”: Don’s Store closing after 71 year run

By: 
DEB HILL
News-Argus Managing Editor

“We love Lewistown, we love the people, we love our customers,” Charlie Pfau, owner of Don’s Store said Thursday afternoon. “But we are closing.”

The closure was announced over Facebook Wednesday: “It is with a heavy heart that we announce Don’s Store will be closing this summer. We are so grateful for the opportunity to have served Central Montana over the last 71 years, but unfortunately the retail industry has changed.”

Internet retailers are behind that change, and the reason Don’s Store is no longer viable, Pfau said.

“We had a huge upward trend through Thanksgiving weekend,” he said. “I told the staff, ‘2018 will be a watershed year for us if this keeps up.’ And then Amazon killed Christmas.”

Pfau is referring to online retail giant Amazon, which, according to Statista (an online statistics site), had net sales of nearly $178 billion dollars in 2017.

“Amazon has more product than we can stock, they can give away storage and shipping costs – they’re huge and it makes it difficult to compete,” Pfau said. “Although our average sale stayed the same, our number of customers went way down. I bet big on Christmas, and when you bet big, there’s a possibility of losing big.”

Last weekend Pfau said he hardly slept, going over and over the numbers.

“On Monday I redid all the numbers, from the most pessimistic case to the most optimistic, but it just wasn’t working. I showed the numbers to my dad [Dale] – I said, ‘Look at these numbers and tell me I’m wrong.’ I wasn’t.”

Pfau called the decision to close the store was “monumental.”

“I thought I’d be here all my life,” he said. “I have been here all my life. My dad was here all his life. My granddad started the store. But I realized that anything I did was just bandaiding the problem.”

The responsibility of closing a store that is not just a community icon, but also a family way of life, was huge, Pfau said.

“But it was also pretty liberating,” he added, explaining trying to keep the store in the black had become overwhelming. It was time to admit it wasn’t working.

Pfau said he hopes the community will continue to shop at Don’s Store over the next few months.

“We hope people will support us, buy from us for the next 30 days,” Pfau said. “Then in April we will start moving merchandise. I’m not sure exactly when the closing date will be; it depends on how long it takes to sell everything.”

Retail still viable

Given the ever-growing competition from online and big box stores, it might be surprising to learn Pfau still believes there is a place for traditional “bricks and mortar” stores, even in small town America.

“This is going to become a huge issue for small towns,” Pfau said, “but I still believe retail can work.

“Not a store like this,” Pfau was quick to add. “This store is a dinosaur. We have four or five departments under one roof, any of which could be a store by itself. If you have a small space, small enough to run by yourself, and you are willing to put in the hours – it can work if you have the drive.”

However, Pfau said, for local retail to remain in the game requires local communities to recognize its value.

“It’s a two-way street,” Pfau said. “If you want retail in your town, you need to support your retailers. If you have to pay $10 more for an item in the local store [than online], you need to look at it as an investment in the community.”

Local stores give back to their communities in important ways, Pfau said. They offer local employment, donate to local causes and the merchants serve on boards of civic and philanthropic organizations.

“Amazon isn’t going to contribute to the raffles for the shooting complex or donate to the Angel Tree,” Pfau said. “The community has to be OK with paying a little extra, because when you do that, you are paying for a little girl’s dance lessons or a little boy’s sports team. We contributed to so many things. When you live in the community, you have to help take care of the community. I firmly believe that. But when your money goes outside the community [to an online or big box store], it never comes back.”

What next?

Closing Don’s Store has affected people far and wide, Pfau said.

“We’ve had calls from customers from Nebraska to Alaska to California, all over, who heard we were closing the store,” Pfau said. “One antelope hunter who comes here from out of state was asking my dad, ‘Where am I going to hang out now when I’m not out hunting?’”

Pfau is asking himself a similar question.

“This store is a family institution,” he said. “But I think I’ll be able to land with my feet on the ground. I’m not sure what exactly I’ll do next, but I have some ideas. My wife and I really want to stay in Lewistown; it’s a great place to raise Carter.”

“But,” he added, “Whatever I end up doing, I hope I have more time to fish.”

 

Locals react to news of store closure

“It goes without saying I am heartbroken by the news that Don's Store will be closing this summer.  Don's has been a cornerstone in the downtown for over 70 years, and the family has been tremendous supporters of the community in so many ways.  I would like to thank the Pfau family for their many years of service to Central Montana, and wish them nothing but the very best in their future endeavors.” Lewistown Downtown Association Chairman Chris Cooler

“Don’s Store has been a retail anchor for sporting goods and hunting/fishing/camping expertise in Lewistown and Central Montana for over 70 years, a relentless promoter of Lewistown’s unsurpassed big game, game bird and fishing assets. Over the years, Don’s Store has supported hundreds of advertising and promotional campaigns to attract nature lovers to our area. Don’s Store will be sorely missed…where else can you go to buy live bait, a Yogo sapphire ring and rent a tuxedo, in addition to all your hunting and fishing needs? I wish the Pfau family well in all their future pursuits, and thank them for all they’ve done to support and provide quality retail for our community.” Karen Kuhlmann, member, Central Montana Tourism Board

“I remember when they were in the old Brooks building. We used to shop there all the time. They had the best Crazy Days, with Don’s Power Hour and different prices each hour. I used to take my kids in there. My son kind of grew up with Charlie Pfau. The store and the Pfaus were almost like part of our family. I was shocked when I heard the news – they will be missed. This will have a huge effect on people.” Connie Fry, executive director, Lewistown Area Chamber of Commerce

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