I have been involved in retail in some way for all 41 years of my time in the work force. 30 of those years were spent in bookstores where I had direct contact with customers. The other eleven years I was designing or remodeling bookstores, working as a merchandise buyer or supervising store managers.
My wife, Tripp Ryder, has been a retailer for all of her 44-year career and all of it has been spent on the sales floor. We’re both booksellers by trade. She has worked in independent bookstores (Fine Print and Content: Purveyors of New and Used Books) and college bookstores (Carleton College Bookstore and River City Books). I worked for B. Dalton Bookseller, a national bookstore chain, and a series of college stores: Carleton College Bookstore, St. Olaf College Bookstore and River City Books, all in Northfield, Minnesota.
I did one other bit of bookselling just after I graduated from college. I sold the World Book encyclopedia door-to-door during the winter of 1977. This career opening move didn’t pan out. It only lasted about two months and I think the biggest reason it failed was because I kicked it off during the first week in January in the middle of a major snowstorm. It wasn’t pleasant. Of course, the failure of the first phase of my young career may also have been because I wasn’t very good at what I was doing.
The reason that I tried my hand with World Book was because my uncle Harold Parke Bergeson was a star with the company and convinced me to give it a go. Hal managed a large regional branch operation in Wisconsin Rapids in central Wisconsin. He had a huge sales force and was always winning awards for his success and I thought I might be able to share in the wealth. Not so much.
Recently, I discovered that my retail roots went back even farther in time. I found the above photograph in the collection I inherited from my mother, Patricia Femrite Bergeson. It shows her parents, Hiram and Josie Femrite, on the floor of the Red Owl grocery store that they managed in the 1920s in Madison, Minnesota. I don’t know how long they had this job, but I’m impressed with the merchandise presentation and the order that I see in the picture.
For most of his working life, grandpa Hi was a salesman for the Williams Hardware Company. The company was headquartered in Minneapolis, but Hi’s territory was western and southern Minnesota. The trunks of his cars were always jammed with product catalogs and samples. I’m assuming that most, if not all, of his customers were hardware stores in towns throughout rural Minnesota.
Brick-and-mortar retail has been in declining health nationally for many years now, but it still has a proper place in our local communities in my opinion. I’m happy to know that my family played a supporting role in the business for decades.