Obituary: Don Olson's corner market became an oasis

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 14, 2012 - 2:03 PM

Don Olson with his wife, Bernice.

For more than three decades, Don Olson shrugged off snowstorms and the occasional stickup, and cornered the market on being the corner market at 34th and Lyndale.

During most of those years, Olson's Dairy and Meats was open every day of the year and helped form a troika of businesses -- along with an ice cream shop and a pharmacy -- that gave residents and those passing through a small-town flavor amid an ever-growing major metropolis.

Need a side of beef? Paycheck come up a bit short? Cashing in a clattering bag of returnable pop bottles? Olson's was the place.

Olson, who ran the grocery from the end of the Truman administration to the middle of Ronald Reagan's years in the White House, died Oct. 29 at his home in Sandstone, Minn., after a series of falls and complications from kidney cancer. He was 87.

"The store," as Don Olson's wife and kids called the business, was a full-service grocery, "not at all like the convenience stores of today, complete with a meat market, fresh produce and a delivery service," said Lynne Olson, his eldest daughter.

Staying open 365 days a year starting in the 1960s ensured that his customers would have "a decent selection when buying last-minute groceries on holidays when the larger grocery stores were closed," Lynne Olson added.

She said her father bought the grocery side of the business (it also housed a meat market) in 1952 -- the same year he was married and became a father.

Don Olson ran it until 1984 to "help and serve people in the neighborhood" as much as to provide a living so he could raise his family in the nearby Linden Hills neighborhood, his daughter said.

"He was happy to extend credit to his customers, and they did a pretty good job of paying him back," said Lynne Olson, who took up position behind the store's lone cash register starting in eighth grade and continued to work there on and off well into adulthood.

"When he had his 25th anniversary, he threw a huge party for the neighborhood to express his appreciation for their continued patronage," she recalled. "During his retirement party, the recreation room at Painter Park across the street was packed with customers and neighbors."

Whenever any one of Minnesota's reputation-cementing snowstorms would bring city life to a crawl, Don Olson made sure his grocery was there.

"My sister and mom remember him putting chains on the station wagon" before driving in and opening up, Lynne Olson said. "While working on blizzard days could be intense -- lots of people and long lines for the one register -- they were always fun and energizing. We always sold a lot of comfort food on those days, particularly chocolate chips for cookies."

The store's folksy persona didn't make it entirely immune from trouble. There were a handful or robberies over the years for "cigarettes and whatever cash was in the register," Lynne Olson recalled.

One winter's day in 1970, the cashier pulled a gun and fired four wayward shots at a suspect as he fled with $58 for his trouble.

Ne'er-do-wells aside, Olson's enduring contribution was bringing stability to 34th and Lyndale, where Sonny's Ice Cream and Don Hopperstad's pharmacy also flourished.

"It was a thriving intersection, serving as a literal cornerstone for the neighborhood because of the three committed businessmen who made it work," said Lynne Olson, whose father was the last survivor among the three.

As for Olson's, Don sold the business in 1984 and retired to Willow River in east-central Minnesota. It changed hands again and is now a yoga studio and coffee shop.

Don Olson is preceded in death by a son, Craig. Along with his wife, Bernice, and daughter Lynne, he is survived by daughter Cynthia and a brother, Richard. Services have been held.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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