Al and Karen Allstadt didn't know much about vacuum cleaners when they opened up Al's Vacuum in 1973.
The young couple, married just a few years earlier, were struggling to make ends meet by teaching in suburban schools. They needed a backup plan, said Karen Allstadt, now 69.
So they bought used trade-in vacuums from Karen's father, a vacuum dealer in Rapid City, S.D., and began to sell them at an Apple Valley music store. A year later, they moved the business to Bloomington ("Apple Valley … wasn't ready for a vacuum store," Al said).
This month, Al's Vacuum is celebrating 45 years in operation. The Bloomington shop is known as one of the region's premier vacuum cleaner dealerships and service centers, selling goods and services to loyal customers from across Minnesota and shipping products farther away.
The store's longevity, they said, is a product of their own careful risk taking and loyal support from the community.
"We had a dream of starting our own business and we worked extremely hard to get it going," said Al Allstadt, 72, in a recent interview from the couple's winter home in Fountain Hills, Ariz. "We have always been forward thinking, tried to be trendsetters."
Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead, who has known the Allstadts since the 1980s, calls their shop "the Nordstrom of the vacuum world." The rest of the country might agree.
In 2014, Al was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Vacuum and Sewing Dealers Trade Association. Others in the Hall of Fame include William Henry "Boss" Hoover and Jim Kirby, whose namesake vacuum cleaners are found around the world.
The shop, however, is both Al and Karen's baby. The only reason it's called "Al's" rather than "Karen's" is because his name came before hers alphabetically in the Yellow Pages, Karen said.
"Back then, advertising in the Yellow Pages was critical and you wanted your ad to be seen first," she said.
A few years after opening the shop in Bloomington, the couple moved the business to a former gas station at 98th Street and Lyndale Avenue. As a way to draw attention to the corner, Al bought a large mechanical gorilla. It eventually became the store's mascot.
"We had no business buying this $900 gorilla back in 1979," he said. But the shop became "very successful … with the gorilla's help," he said.
After Bloomington began to redevelop the 98th and Lyndale area in the mid-1980s, the Allstadts got support from the city to build a shopping center a few blocks up Lyndale. The shop has been there ever since.
After 45 years in business, Al and Karen have learned what makes for the best vacuum cleaner.
They prefer bagged vacuums over bagless, for instance. They also recommend vacuums that have high-efficiency filtration and trap allergic particles. A good vacuum, they said, should last about 20 years.
Any other questions, they can answer in person. "Most people don't tend to read instruction manuals," Al said.
They started out with an inventory of $500 worth of used vacuum cleaners, which now has become what they believe to be the largest vacuum selection in the Midwest. Al said they have more than 90,000 customers in their database, with people coming from near and far to buy vacuums or get them repaired.
"It's a very nice store that has everything you need … regarding vacuum cleaners," said Winstead. "It's really just a first-class operation."
Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753