DULUTH — Sandy Cloutier has sold thousands of cards for the celebrating, the grieving and the grateful.

Now she needs one of her own: "Sorry to hear your store is closing."

Allison's Hallmark, part of Duluth's skywalk since the system opened more than 41 years ago, is shutting its doors.

Traffic through the skywalk isn't what it used to be. Shopping habits have shifted. Sales have fallen to unsustainable levels. And at 75, Cloutier is ready to spend more time with her two grandsons in Arizona.

"I thought I could do this forever," she said. "But it doesn't work that way."

It's not over yet. She'll be giving a long Minnesota goodbye and has no firm closing date in mind. After telling her rep she was closing the store, Cloutier turned around and ordered some more cards and candy. Her customers will come looking for them, she reasoned.

"In the past couple years I've felt it was my duty to be here. I needed to be here for those people who needed to run in on their lunch hour, grab a card," she said. "I put the closing signs up. I haven't been able to go beyond that."

It was her brother, Bud Stark, who first opened the store. He originally had a Baskin-Robbins in mind, but when a contractor building the Holiday Center suggested a Hallmark, it stuck. For decades.

"After my brother passed away I felt I had to take it up — and then I got hooked," Cloutier said.

There was a time when Cloutier kept the store — named Allison's Hallmark after her daughter's Cabbage Patch doll — open seven days a week. Sometimes she'd stay as late as 11 p.m. restocking. Most holiday evenings were spent at the store preparing for post-holiday sales.

"A lot of my family's Christmases were spent here," she said.

As the "Store Closing" signs proclaim in the windows, the shop will be open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with much of the inventory marked down 50% until Cloutier finally turns out the light for good; if her landlord gave her a deadline, she wouldn't say.

The store has never been a major source of income — more of a hobby, Cloutier said. That makes it all the harder to leave behind.

"I have spent the best part of my adulthood here in the store and I loved it," Cloutier said. "There are certain customers I know all about their family, their grandkids.

"I'm so grateful to all the people that have come in over all these years."

Foot traffic dying out

Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council, said the store will be missed.

"They have been a part of our downtown for such a long time," she said. "There's a lot that many of us are trying to do to generate additional traffic in the skywalk system."

As Cloutier looked out the windows from her darkened storefront after closing for the day Monday, she recalled a time when the lunch rush was so busy you couldn't see to the convenience store across the hall.

That's just not how it is anymore.

"It's all about change," she said. "I've seen big, big changes in the past 10 years regarding people's buying habits. And it's not just our store, it's everywhere."

The Holiday Center has seen many retailers and restaurants come and go over the years, and Hallmark had one of the busiest corners in Duluth's skywalk hub. Its survival was based on a culture of collectibles, offhand gifts and greeting cards. Today's shoppers don't seek those items out as much, Cloutier said, and it shows in the receipts.

"I found every excuse in the book to stay here, but financially we couldn't do it anymore. Physically I couldn't do it anymore," she said.

"Someone once told me you're going to know when it's time. It's time."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496