Monday, March 4, 2024
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Minnesota's oldest co-op store may close
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Kasey Helling at the checkout counter in the century old Godahl store. It faces an uncertain future. (MPR Photo/Mark Steil)
Minnesota's oldest co-op store is in trouble. The business in the tiny town of Godahl survived headline events like world wars and the great depression unfazed. It's the slow-motion changes which threaten to do in the store: population declines, farming changes, the growth of nearby towns. Sales are down at the southern Minnesota store, but patrons hope to keep the business open.

Godahl, Minn. — Visitors can find the first evidence of efforts to save the business taped to the checkout counter at the old-fashioned general store. A handwritten note thanks everyone who attended a fund-raiser for the Godahl store; a rummage/bake sale.

It's the type of down-home touch which endears the establishment to so many customers, like Vera Rossbach.

"I was born in 1930 and the store was going very vigorously at that time," says Rossbach. "I remember my childhood was pretty much connected with the Godahl store."

It's a place where sales are still rung up on a manual cash register. A box next to the till holds account pads for customers. Some pay in advance, others run up an interest free tab, forty bucks is the limit. Seated at a table in the back of the store, Vera Rossbach says she's witnessed it all. She can still see herself riding a bicycle over crunchy gravel to the little white building which held childhood treasure.

"We'd always beg 'Mom can we have a nickel for an ice cream cone.' Even if it was hard times she almost always gave us that nickel," says Rossbach.

Rossbach has exchanged the bike for a car, nickels for dollars, but she still makes the trip to the store. Its one of the few buildings still standing in Godahl, only a dozen or so people live there anymore. Rossbach says just like in the old days, it's a handy place to buy food, tools, household supplies and keep in touch.

"It's very much of a social center," says Rossbach. "Because if we have announcements, or auction bills, church activities, they can always put a poster up so that they know what's going on in the community."

One of the posters up now announces the town's annual Labor Day celebration. This year the event will serve as a rallying point for those interested in saving the store.

One of those people is Kasey Helling. Helling, who works on a farm, stopped by the store with his four year old son. Farmers organized a cooperative and built the store in 1894. They wanted a business close by for supplies. Helling says the store still serves the same purpose today.

"Be sitting baling and you shear something off or whatever and you can quick run here and grab something and get back to work instead of running to New Ulm or running to St. James and getting your parts there," says Helling.

It works fine if the store has the needed part. It's a great place to buy flat washers and three inch bolts. Sometimes that's not enough.

It's a nuts and bolts place in an internet world. There's enough people within a few miles to support it, but getting them to stop is difficult.

The store is fine on essentials; milk, canned goods, simple hardware items. Anything more specialized and the potential customer heads for a larger town. Jim Augustin lives in Mankato, 30 miles to the east, but grew up on a farm near Godahl. He heads a committee working to save the store.

"If we don't do something it will close. But I think we can keep it going," says Augustin.

He says the bake sale was a morale booster, but realizes fundraisers alone cannot save the store. He says it needs to boost sales by about $20,000 a year. He says it could diversify its selection to attract more people. Like many of the store's supporters, he has a personal interest in keeping it going. "I may end up back there someday," says Augustin. "I want the place to be there if I ever do come back there."

Augustin says along with the personal reasons there are community interests as well. The store is the last remnant of a rural neighborhood. People from miles around call the town home. Augustin and others yearn for that to continue. Still, they know it can't, if sales stay down. It's a vision of childhood trips to buy ice cream cones, punctured by dollar signs.

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