Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Little General Store on the Prairie March 27, 2013

I LOVE BERNADETTE THOOFT’S infectious laugh and outgoing personality. And I love what this mother of seven is doing for my hometown.

The Store: Thrift and More sits just off Minnesota Highway 19 in Vesta in Redwood County.

The Store: Thrift and More sits just off Minnesota Highway 19 in Vesta in Redwood County.

In February she opened The Store: Thrift and More in Vesta, population 330 and the only town along the 40-mile stretch of Minnesota Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and Marshall.

The “more” part of Bernadette’s store includes eight shelving units stocked with foodstuff, personal care items, paper products and more in addition to perishables stashed in nearby coolers.

The grocery section of the store includes basic perishables like dairy products, some fruit, lettuce and more. Canned, boxed and bagged foods, personal care items, and miscellaneous items like greeting cards, tape and such fill eight shelving units.

The grocery section of the store includes basic perishables like dairy products, organic eggs, some fruit, lettuce and more. Canned, boxed and bagged foods; personal care items; and miscellaneous items like greeting cards, tape and such fill eight shelving units.

I don’t know exactly how long my hometown has been without a grocery store. But it’s been awhile. Locals, like my 80-year-old mom, have had to drive 20 miles either east or west to find the nearest grocery store. Now this community’s residents, many of them elderly, need only walk or drive to the west edge of town to buy a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, organic eggs from Bernadette and Matt Thooft’s farm, fruit and an assortment of processed foods that include SPAM, much to my mom’s delight.

This is huge, to have groceries and basic necessities available in Vesta. Bernadette even offered to have her 11-year-old son deliver right to my mom’s doorstep a block away. Such small-town neighborliness simply warms my heart. Many times the good people of Vesta have assisted my mother. And for that, I am grateful.

Looking toward the back thrift section of the floor.

Looking from the front grocery section toward the back thrift area of The Store.

Bernadette tells me she originally hadn’t planned on stocking groceries, rather dedicating her floor space to thrift items that range from kitchenware to toys, books to clothing, gift items to home décor and an assortment of other merchandise.

Vintage glasses in the thrift section.

Vintage glasses in the thrift section.

Bernadette offers a great selection of used books for all ages.

Bernadette offers a great selection of used books for all ages.

You'll also find a selection of clothes.

You’ll also find a shoes and clothing.

One of my favorite finds in The Store, an $8 vintage Pyrex casserole, which I nearly purchased.

One of my favorite finds in The Store, an $8 vintage Pyrex casserole, which I nearly purchased.

But then she started getting requests to carry groceries. So Bernadette decided to buy food and products her family can use. That way, if items don’t sell, she doesn’t lose anything. Once a week this entrepreneur mother drives the 20 miles west to Hy-Vee Foods in Marshall, reselling her purchases in Vesta at a slightly marked up price that will help cover gas expenses.

Jason Kramer stops in to buy a few grocery items from Bernadette.

Jason Kramer stops in to buy a few grocery items from Bernadette.

Already several local families come to The Store once a week to purchase their groceries, she says. On the Saturday afternoon I visited, Jason Kramer popped in from his home across the street to pick up Oreos, chips, bread and milk. He calls opening of The Store “flippin’ awesome.”

It is that type of enthusiasm Bernadette hopes for from other Vesta area residents. She needs their support, and business off the highway, to make her venture work in this isolated prairie town.

Just another view of the store with Bernadette bagging Jason's purchases.

Just another view of the store and Bernadette’s office with Bernadette bagging Jason’s purchases.

In the short time I perused the store and spoke with Bernadette, several others stopped in—two middle schoolers to eye the toy collection and eventually purchase candy, a middle-aged couple scanning thrift items and then Jason for his groceries. I walked out with a kettle for my college-aged son and my husband grabbed packaging tape and a dispenser.

This 1800s general store counter anchors The Store.

This 1800s general store counter anchors The Store. Those are our purchases on the counter, that kettle and tape.

Bernadette says she’s aiming to recreate a Mom and Pop general store with a little bit of everything. I was delighted to find candy lining the 1800s checkout counter, reminding me of the penny candy I bought at Rasmussen’s Grocery while growing up in Vesta. The vintage counter, purchased from a Lake Benton antique store, originated from a general store between Lake Benton and Brookings, South Dakota. It’s the perfect fit for The Store, lending that historic authenticity reminiscent of yesteryear.

Like the old-fashioned general store, Bernadette has set up candy display, including my favorite Tootsie Pops.

Like the old-fashioned general store, Bernadette has set up a candy display, including my favorite Tootsie Pops.

I can remember when Vesta boasted two hardware stores, several restaurants/bars and a grocery store along with other businesses, in its one-block Main Street.

Rarely does a new business open here. But Bernadette, who lives on a farm near Lucan seven miles to the south, was looking to locate along the highway, conveniently next door to her husband’s business, Matt’s Frame Repair.

A young customer exits The Store, left, while three of the Thooft kids, including Maxwell, 4, and Beatrice, 21 months, hang out with Mom.

A young customer exits The Store, left, while three of the Thooft kids, including Maxwell, 4, and Beatrice, 21 months, hang out with Mom. The Thooft’s children include an 11-year-old, two 7-year-olds, two 4-year-olds, a 3-year-old and a 21-month-old.

She likes that Matt can walk over for lunch and spend time with her and the kids, ranging in age from 21 months to 11 years. She affectionately calls her seven, five of them birth children, two adopted, “the hoodlums.” The kids hang out in a room built into a corner of the poleshed style building.

Look around and you'll see Bernadette's sense of humor in signage and props like this doll perched upon the cash register.

Look around and you’ll see Bernadette’s sense of humor in signage and props like this doll perched upon the cash register.

While the kids play and Matt naps in that corner playroom, Bernadette tends to customers on this Saturday afternoon in March. Her laptop sits open on her desk, her reference source for the thrift merchandise purchased primarily from online auctions and also from garage sales.

This sign by the thrift store points travelers along Minnesota Highway 19, left, to The Store and the Vesta Cafe.

This sign by the thrift store points travelers along Minnesota Highway 19, left, to The Store and the Vesta Cafe.

Bernadette is donating 10 percent of thrift sale proceeds to local charities like the United Way, a crisis nursery, area schools and the broader Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. She’s also created a “Believe in the Backpack” charity whereby she fills backpacks for kids in foster care.

In the short time I’ve spent with Bernadette, it’s clear to me that this Osakis native and former daycare provider loves kids and cares about folks in my hometown enough to open her own little general store on the prairie. And for that I am grateful.

This sign graces the front of The Store: Thrift and More.

This sign graces the front of The Store: Thrift and More.

FYI: The Store: Thrift and More is open from 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; from 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. Thursday; and with varied hours on Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Tuesday.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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24 Responses to “Little General Store on the Prairie”

  1. treadlemusic Says:

    Such a great endeavor! She has the vision and the energy to support it!!! Every small town needs such…..a wonderful “gathering place”, too!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I tell ya, when I heard about this store opening, I was excited. Vesta needs this place to buy your basic foods and other “stuff.” I know the merchandise is more expensive. But locals have to consider their gas costs in driving 40 miles round-trip to shop at a larger store. My mom hopes Bernadette will also sell fresh garden produce in the summer.

      I think Bernadette should also offer gift certificates so that daughters like me can buy these for our moms, thus encouraging local shopping and supporting a Vesta business. My siblings and I buy our mom meal tickets to eat at the Vesta Cafe all the time. I know she appreciates a gift like that way more than some useless trinket.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        Gift certificates are always a great idea! When I had my sewing business I was asked/provided such for many to give (usually involved a quick alteration such as pants/jeans hem, etc). They are always welcome and 1 size fits all!!!!!!

      • Bernadette Thooft Says:

        Great Idea!! I will NOW carry and sell GIFT Certificates!!! Thanks for the idea Audrey — too funny I did not think of that as we do the same thing for our Mom’s in their towns.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        You are welcome, Bernadette. Hear that, “kids” of Vesta residents. Next time you’re looking for a gift idea for Mom or Dad, consider a gift certificate to The Store. That’s one way those of us who no longer live in Vesta can support a local business AND give our parents something useful.

  2. Jackie Says:

    What a blessing B. must be to this little community. I Love the candy display, reminds me of our “little store” growing up in the country (about 5 miles south of Rochester). Now all she needs is the “penny” gum ball machine 🙂 I also spy’d that sweet little white dress in the 6th picture. Looks like it would fit my Audrey perfectly 🙂

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Oh, that dress caught my eye, too. I was thinking, if only I had someone to buy it for…

      You’re right. A gumball machine would be a perfect addition.

  3. That is so great! And how cool that she’s donating 10% – Colin is the president of the United Way in Nobles County and I know that hearing stuff like that makes him very happy!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Bernadette has a big heart. That much I gathered in less than an hour spent with her.

  4. Erin Says:

    Love to discover these little stores in rural MN! It reminds me of a little store in northern MN. Their sign said Nails, US Mail, and Groceries.

    Are there local farmers that could sell their produce wholesale to her?

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      That’s an excellent idea, Erin, to have local farmers/gardeners sell produce to Bernadette to resell. My mom misses the fresh garden veggies and I know she would be grateful to be able to purchase a tomato or fresh green beans, etc.

      I love that sign: Nails, US Mail and Groceries. Pretty much covers the basics. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Beth Ann Says:

    That is flipping wonderful and amazing. 🙂 What a great place and endeavor!! Good for her and what a great thing for your mom!!! Sounds like she has the right idea so I hope she can make a go of it!!! Great highlight!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Love how you played off Jason’s enthusiasm in your comment. Bernadette is simply one of those people you just love from the minute you meet her. I am thrilled with her opening of the store as it is really needed in my hometown.

  6. What a Great Post – love when someone seems a gap in the market and goes for it to fill that gap! Love supporting the local businesses in my community:) Have a Great Day

  7. Bernadette Thooft Says:

    Thanks Audrey for the amazing article and to everyone else for their comments and support of local businesses — we need more people “Keeping it Local” or soon everything will completely closed down and more small towns will be boarded up and non-existant.
    If any of you find yourself heading our way on HWY 19 — Please stop in and say hello!!!

    God Bless and Have a beautiful day!!!
    Bernadette

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You are welcome, Bernadette.

      Alright, local Vestans and travelers along Minnesota Highway 19, support local businesses by shopping at The Store. And while you’re in town, drive three blocks further and dine at the Vesta Cafe.

  8. What a pretty counter. Best of luck to her; it’s so hard for small businesses.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      That counter is an absolute gem. Bernadette is determined and energetic and optimistic and that can go a long ways in business success.

      Per my suggestion, she is now offering gift certificates.


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