Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Closed, much to my disappointment July 10, 2017

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SOMETIMES IT’S JUST too hot to do business…apparently.

 

Photographed last week in downtown Elysian, Minnesota, when the temp hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Speaking up against prejudice in my Minnesota community April 28, 2014

AWHILE AGO, I DECIDED I would no longer remain silent.

And Saturday afternoon, while purchasing a Betsy Bowen print and greeting cards at the Northfield Senior Center thrift store, Used A Bit Shoppe, I spoke up.

While I waited for my framed print to be wrapped in newspaper, I chatted with the friendly woman behind the counter. We talked about the spinning glasstop table crafted from three monkey statues—“hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”—and the other unique recycled merchandise in this jam-packed shoppe.

I’d never been here, I told her, didn’t even know that this place existed, that I didn’t live in Northfield. The business had moved not all that long ago, she said, to this larger location.

About that time a hulk of a man wedged in beside me and interrupted, adding that he remembered the old store, that he used to live in Northfield and now lived in neighboring Faribault.

A Somali family waits to cross a street in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

A Somali family waits to cross a street in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

But he wanted to return to Northfield, he said, “because of all the Somalis in Faribault.” Disdain colored his words.

He’d just said the wrong thing to me.

I turned, looked him in the eye, and told him I did not appreciate his disrespect for Somali people.

That set him off. I can’t recall every word spoken, but I do remember the bit about his grandmother being a war bride and speaking seven languages. Not once did he explain why he so disliked Somalis. Not that an explanation would have mattered.

As his agitation grew, I began to feel threatened.

“Sir, I don’t want to argue with you,” I said, attempting to diffuse the situation. “I’m just sharing my opinion.”

“I don’t like you forcing your opinion on me,” he responded, ever-growing anger tinging his voice. “When they (Somalis) respect me, I will respect them.”

He finally walked away, edging toward a cluster of other shoppers, including my husband, who’d overheard bits of the mostly one-sided conversation.

I turned back to the elderly clerk, picked up the four dollars and some odd cents change she’d laid on the counter.

“Welcome to Northfield,” I said. “Oh, that’s right, he’s from Faribault. I feel sorry for people like him who cannot respect others.”

Then I exited this shoppe where a “speak no evil” monkey hunches with a hand clamped across his mouth.

© Copyright 2014 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

 

Discussing the economy and jobs at a Faribault thrift store June 5, 2012

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“THE ECONOMY WILL only get worse and this time it will be world-wide,” he warns, he being an unemployed, former military man.

“But I think things are getting better,” I counter. “I’ve seen more jobs openings posted in the paper, more houses selling.”

He disagrees, says he has military friends in Europe. Times are tough there and only getting worse.

I am surprised by the doom-and-gloom economic forecast delivered by this 50-something-year-old job seeker during a brief conversation at The Clothes Closet, a used clothing store in downtown Faribault. I don’t know him, but he’s squeezed past me several times, carrying clothing from the back of the store to the check-out counter.

Finally, I can no longer contain my curiosity and comment, “You’re sure buying a lot of clothes.”

“I’m looking for a job,” he says, then begins spilling his story like we are long-time friends.

He can’t make ends meet on his military pension, although he’s grateful for that income, he says. So he’s looking for a job in security, maybe with the border patrol. He’ll travel soon to Corpus Christi in search of work that pays more than $9 an hour.

His 15-year-old daughter, who has been living with her mother, is coming with him. He’s relieved to no longer be paying $900 in monthly child support to a woman he says did not spend the money on their daughter. He seems genuinely happy to have his girl back.

But he’s not so cheerful about the process of applying for a job. “It’s not like it used to be where you can walk in and sell yourself,” he says. He doesn’t like the online resume job-screening process, preferring instead the personal one-on-one contact with a potential employer.

He looks like the type of fellow who could, face-to-face, easily sell himself as a security guard. Ex-military. Big guy. I expect he appears intimidating and authoritative in a uniform.

But for now, for this day, he is an unemployed and worried American buying clothes at a second-hand clothing store in Minnesota.

I was searching in my files for an image to illustrate this post. This particular photo has nothing to do with the man I engaged in conversation or the thrift store where we talked or even his job search. Yet, I consider it fitting for this story, and here’s why. To me, this shot from Main Street in tiny Norwalk exhibits this southwestern Wisconsin community’s optimism. Against the backdrop of weathered and shuttered buildings stand two symbols of optimism: those gorgeous hanging baskets and the American flag. Norwalk, along the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail, calls itself “The Black Squirrel Capital of the World.”

WHAT’S YOUR OPINION on the economy? Is is improving or, as the ex-military man predicts, going to get considerably worse here and world-wide by this fall?

According to “employment situation” information released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on June 1, “the unemployment rate (for May) was essentially unchanged at 8.2 percent.” Currently, 12.7 million people are unemployed. The unemployment rate for adult men is 7.8 percent. To read the full report, click here.

ARE YOU LOOKING for a job? Share your experience by submitting a comment. How do you feel about the online job application process used by most businesses?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bargain vintage Thanksgiving candles November 20, 2010

 

 

Vintage Thanksgiving candles displayed in my home.

 

LOOK AT THESE SWEET vintage candles I purchased in a Redwood Falls thrift store in August.

Now, if I was running this business, I may have waited to sell these holiday candles closer to Thanksgiving. I also may have priced them higher than 50 cents each.

But the shop owner neither waited nor over-priced these candles. I was fortunate enough to find and snap up the bargain collectibles.

My daughters think the candles are ugly and weird. I don’t share their opinion.

I find these kitschy candles festive. They make me smile. And I bet when I host Thanksgiving dinner, more than one guest will comment on the candles and ask where I got them.

In case you’re wondering, I will not put fire to the never-been-burned wicks. These candles are purely for decoration and for the enjoyment of those who appreciate ugly, weird, kitschy, festive candles.

 

 

An up-close look at those two collectible Thanksgiving candles.

 

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling