The Marine General Store has only changed hands half a dozen times since the Civil War. So it means a lot to the people in town when it goes up for sale. They grow anxious that something might change, because they have it pretty good.
“The General Store is the absolute anchor and epicenter of life in Marine on St. Croix,” said Robyn Dochterman, who runs a store down the street. “The owners understand what the townspeople a) need and b) want. If you need Marcona Almonds, it’s there. I mentioned goat milk one time and — seriously — an employee brought me some a week later. To my door! And I thought: ‘Wow! OK!’ ”
Owners Karen and Andy Kramer are conscious of being both inheritors of squeaky-floor country charm and provisioners to one of the wealthier parts of the state — a horse-owning realm of country estates.
The store, which the Kramers put up for sale earlier this month, may look old-school from the street. But its stock of rentable flicks runs heavily to documentaries and foreign films. And the owners have learned to be ready when a gourmet cook races in, looking for a missing ingredient.
“A man came in one day and announced, ‘I just bet someone that you don’t carry capers,’ ” Karen Kramer recalls. “I told him, ‘We have two kinds.’ The next week he came in again and I said, ‘What’s the bet this time?’ He said, ‘I’m not playing that anymore.’ ”
A decade at ‘Ralph’s’
The Kramers bought the store 10 years ago, knowing full well that they were becoming the latest successors to an emporium immortalized by Garrison Keillor on his “Prairie Home Companion” show as “Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery.”
Ralph, a former owner, is a real guy. “He’s in here almost every day,” said store manager Gwen Roden, a lifelong Marine on St. Croix resident.
Now the Kramers are ready to bail.
To overhear them attempting to make a “sales pitch” to a much younger couple is to be reminded there really is such a thing as Lake Wobegon: a deep modesty that forbids them, even while trying to entice a buyer into a $900,000 purchase, from being anything but candid.
“We bought it out of the corporate world and were totally naive, to be honest,” Andy Kramer confessed.
Some day, Karen Kramer said in an interview later on, the couple is going to compile a list of its Top 10 Bloopers, including its “worst ordering mistakes.”
Like trying to order a pallet of windshield fluid, only to be gently informed by the salesman that that was, like, hundreds of bottles. Or a “bin of apples,” which would be close to a thousand pounds. “We would have had no place for them,” she said.
Still, the romance of the store has drawn lots of interest, if no solid offers. A mention in the media of an upcoming sale drew four potential buyers in a single day.
‘15 miles from Big Box’
Marine on St. Croix watches with intense interest.
Judy Stern, an author who once owned a gallery in downtown Minneapolis, and who moved to Marine on St. Croix in 1990, stands alongside the town gazebo and observes:
“There are two buildings that this town pours its love into: the Village Hall and the General Store.”
The rest of main street is beyond sleepy on a weekday afternoon: the coffee shop has closed for the day, the candy store is shut, a boutique is dark. A onetime ice cream shop became a pizza place whose signs still exist alongside banners advertising a whole new incarnation this spring.
Yet the Marine General Store seems constantly busy.
“This is my second visit of the day,” said firewood vendor Mike Tibbetts. “I only spent seven bucks the first time, three bucks this time, but I’ll probably be here two more times. We’re 15 miles from Big Box,” meaning major supermarket chains in Stillwater, “so I do 80 percent of my shopping here.”
Dochterman, who co-owns the high-end St. Croix Chocolate Co., and will open a retail store/wine bar down the street in May, said she stops in “constantly, probably every day: if I need microplaned lemon peel I can walk half a block for lemons. If I want to stock up on toilet paper, I go to Cub.”
“The big store’s got ya on price,” Karen Kramer admits. “But we carry things they don’t, gourmet or organic, or things you need right now, in the middle of a recipe.
“This building used to be a saloon, with a cathouse upstairs. I used to say, ‘If things don’t work out, we’re gonna restart the cathouse.’ ”
She added, after a pause: “Someone asked, ‘What did they do with the cats?’ People can be so innocent.”
The Kramers say they have made a go of it, financially, but Andy Kramer has reached retirement age and grandchildren are starting to arrive. With family in California and Australia, there are trips they’d like to take in a more leisurely, long-stay way than the store allows.
Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, said the county was lucky on many counts to have store owners as fond of the history and diligent about upkeep as the Kramers have been.
“Andy did a lot of historical research on the building,” Peterson said. “Too bad they’re getting out of the business, but hopefully there will be another proprietor who will take as good a care of the building as they did.”
The couple plan to remain residents of Marine on St. Croix. But Karen Kramer worries a bit about the sudden downshift.
“We’ll probably be bored stiff.”