BEMIDJI, Minn. – There aren’t that many Ben Franklin stores left. The 88-year-old five-and-dime empire that once stood 2,500 stores strong has fallen to just 125. In a few weeks, it will lose one more.
Bemidji’s Ben Franklin is going out of business.
“When we really looked at it, we couldn’t make it work,” store owner John Lutz said.
Revenue at the downtown Ben Franklin dropped by a third over the summer, and Lutz said the reason is easy to pinpoint.
“It’s Hobby Lobby,” he said.
As locals picked over 20 percent-off yarn and picture frames, Lutz leaned in a chair in a small back office. He didn’t seem surprised about the loss of his business. After all, he’s been the owner of seven Ben Franklins that went under after a big-box retailer came to town.
Lutz bought his first Ben Franklin franchise in 1976 in Carthage, N.Y. He was young and ambitious, looking to strike out on his own.
“I sold the house, traded in my retirement, my father loaned me $20,000,” he said. “And I bought into Ben Franklin.”
And for a while the gamble paid off. He said the store raked in $560,000 its first year. Two years in, a 60,000-square-foot Ames Department Store came to town. Lutz still remembers when the signs showed up.
“My sales got killed,” he said. “I was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was so heartbreaking.”
Lutz packed up and moved operations to a mall in the small town of Alexandria Bay, N.Y.
“I ended up with a divorce from the stress of it all,” he said, “but the store took off.”
He expanded to Rome, N.Y., got remarried, had children and bought a house. Then a popular chain of drugstores moved in.
As business in Alexandria Bay fell, Rome got its first Wal-Mart. By 1996, Lutz was riding the edge of bankruptcy yet again, looking for a place where Ben Franklin might be safe from the spread of large-scale retailers.
Lutz said Ben Franklin corporate in southeastern Wisconsin told him Minnesota was that safe place. Lutz bought an established store in Park Rapids and moved his family. He picked up stores in Wadena, Detroit Lakes, Walker, and finally Bemidji in 2010. One by one, he saw them fail; he either closed them up, or sold. Lutz still has the Park Rapids store, but said it’s just scraping by.
In April, Hobby Lobby opened a massive new store in uptown Bemidji. It has all the products carried by Ben Franklin for lower prices. It has more employees with better pay. Hobby Lobby, Lutz said, means the end of Ben Franklin.
For Denis Gardner, a historian for the Minnesota Historical Society, that’s a loss — not to the community’s ability to buy squirt guns and craft supplies, but to a certain life experience.
“The stores always had a certain smell,” he said, “from the old wood floors and the old paint on the walls. You got the sense it had served generations before you.”
One day many years from now Wal-Mart might carry the same nostalgia, but Gardener doesn’t think so.
“People loved Ben Franklin,” Lutz said. “The old five and dime. Well, these days nothing’s a nickel.”