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Minnesota roadside fireworks won't blow you away
By William Wilcoxen
Minnesota Public Radio
July 4, 2002

When the Minnesota Legislature legalized some types of fireworks this year, it set the stage for the arrival of an American institution long missing from the Land of Lakes: the roadside fireworks stand. Over the past few weeks, colorful tents have sprouted in parking lots, along highway shoulders, and on frontage roads. For just a few more days, the entrepreneurial spirit will live on under those canopies as self-starting salespeople hawk their remaining sparklers, fountains, jumping jacks, and whippersnappers.

Fireworks stands have sprouted along Minnesota roadsides since the legislature legalized some low-grade fireworks. One owner said while business picked up at the beginning of July, competition from discount stores means he probably won't be back next year.
(MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)

William Gruber started selling fireworks on Saint Paul's West Seventh Street on June 23rd. But July second was the turning point. That's when Gruber says business suddenly went from slow to crazy with his various items practically flying off their tables.

"There's all kinds of smoke bombs and sparklers, large tubes and medium sized tubes," he says. "There's party packs with the poppers and the spinners and the snakes, the snaps, there's a lot of smoke bombs out there, jumping jacks, there's some signal flares, blooming ground flowers."

The list goes on and on.

If you're unsure how to tell your poppers and spinners from your snaps and jumping jacks, don't feel embarrassed. Managers of these roadside stands say they're inundated with questions from Minnesotans who have no experience with the gamut of fireworks trinkets. Rob Clapp offered suggestions to a novice customer at his stand just off Interstate 94.

"These are really good," he says pointing to a brightly colored pile. "These are dancing butterflys. And what you do there is you light it, it'll do a bunch of colors, it'll spin around, then it'll stop. And six little things jump out and 'ZZZZZZZ!'" Clapp waves his hands around to add to the effect. Then, he says, they "start turning a bunch of colors. It's really fun!"

Family packs have been good sellers as Minnesotans acquaint themselves with different types of fireworks.
(MPR photo/William Wilcoxen)

On Highway 61 in Newport, Chris Berg anticipated the flood of questions about which items turn which colors, what they sound like and how cool they are. So, before opening his stand, Berg did a little homework.

"We took a small portion, probably about a third of our inventory, to our home, lit it all off," he says. "Then we put everything on a table and said 'We've lit that stuff off and we recommend it.'"

Many fireworks remain illegal in Minnesota, including firecrackers, bottle rockets and other items that make loud bangs. But devotees of those noisier toys know where to find them. Usually it's just across the border in Wisconsin. Berg says his sales are hurt by his relative proximity to the Wisconsin outlets and their wider selection.

"Being right here in Newport, there's an awful lot of people coming in, seeing that we don't have the bottle rockets and the firecrackers and they're driving the extra 20 minutes down to Prescott. So, I'm hoping the Legislature and the Senate legalizes everything."

But many Minnesotans are just happy to have access to the quieter fireworks, with their colorful displays. Brian Willie of Saint Paul spent fifty-two dollars on a family pack containing an assortment of items. Willie says he was looking for something his three children would enjoy.

"They don't really know anything about fireworks, really," he admits. "And when I showed them sparklers just a few days ago, they were like 'Holy Cow!' They were almost a little nervous about it because they never experienced it. So I thought this would be a really nice display for the kids to see and stuff. We're going to have one heck of a good day."

Operators of Minnesota's first fireworks stands in sixty years are hoping sales continue into the weekend. Rob Clapp admitted business is not as brisk as he'd hoped...

"It's been going really well." He pauses. "Well, actually, so-so. We're just now turning a profit."

Some retailers say even they aren't sure what the different fireworks do. The owner of this stall set off some inventory in his back yard so he could describe the fireworks to customers.
(MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)

Clapp says he and his partner are now assured of breaking even, but they are still sitting on a lot of inventory. He says they'll cut prices through Saturday, then have a party with whatever is left.

Clapp doubts he'll revive his fireworks stand next year, though. He expects competition from discount retailers and supermarkets will be too tough for his roadside venture to be profitable.

In Newport, Chris Berg says he's hoping his stand will raise enough money to pay for his upcoming wedding. Berg says he's not surprised that the popularity of fireworks has endured through decades of illegality in Minnesota...

"For me they're just fun. I think people just enjoy it" he says. "They like seeing the colors, they like seeing the sparks. Every time you light off a firework, it's like opening a present because you're not quite sure what's in there and they all do something a little bit different."

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