Worldwide Wednesday: A Tragedy for Main Street, USA

Big boxes and online bargains have crushed downtown America, forcing local businesses to close, including Greaton’s Jewelers, owned by my friend Karen Greaton, who is ironically a direct descendant of some of the very city founders of New Richmond.  How sad it is that the thriving community that once existed has been lost, perhaps for good – or would that be “for bad”?

Sarah Young writes about this tragedy of modern economics in the New Richmond News:

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It will be the end of an era when Greaton’s Designing Jewelers closes its doors for the last time in the coming weeks. Though no firm closing date is set, Karen Greaton and her family are in the process of going out of business and selling off stock, preparing to close their downtown New Richmond shop that has been a mainstay in the community for 65 years.

While Greaton is planning to retire and will spend winters in Florida with her husband Bill Gillespie, she has mixed feelings about closing her store.

“It breaks my heart, not being able to keep it open for the next generation,” Greaton said. “Selling all of my beautiful inventory is hard. But I am seeing it going to people who will appreciate it and love it.”

Greaton, Gillespie and their son Regg Gillespie all agree many factors in addition to Greaton’s retirement have contributed to the closing of the store.

“We would rather stay open,” Greaton said. “We would rather stay in business. I’ve trained the third generation (Regg).”

The happy reason for closing is Greaton’s hard-earned retirement, said Regg. She and Gillespie plan to see the Mediterranean and explore Wisconsin’s hidden gems. But the close-knit family agreed they don’t see a future for Greaton’s in downtown New Richmond. They feel not enough is being done to develop and sustain a thriving, bustling, welcoming, “user friendly” downtown business district, especially with a busy four-lane highway serving as the city’s main street.

Gillespie said many shoppers are turned off by the lack of accessible parking downtown, not to mention the speed and danger of traffic zipping along Highway 65/Knowles Avenue.

“The city is a sleeper town, a bedroom community, in a retail sense,” Regg said. “It’s the city that’s made it that way.”

Gillespie said Greaton’s doesn’t have enough consumers coming through its doors, and said one reason is due to the lack of retail stores to draw customers to the downtown district. A bustling street that was once lined with clothing stores, boutiques and every shop imaginable is now home to many vacant storefronts while more businesses prefer to expand or build on the outskirts of town, Gillespie said.

“There were so many businesses here it was crazy,” Greaton said of the downtown district before the four-lane highway was built in the mid 1980s. “When the new road was built was when businesses started leaving. The economy has also been a huge problem. There haven’t been enough people walking through.”

The family also laments the new era of the “big box store,” where things are often cheaper and less quality than the custom, high-end or specialty jewelry and gifts Greaton’s carries.

“I always said, you get a present at a big box store,” Gillespie said. “You come to Greaton’s to buy a gift.”

Greaton said someone once told her she had a niche in town, and when she sat down to figure out exactly what that meant, she realized that her store had gifts for everybody: moms, teachers, girlfriends, wives, etc.

“We had them (customers) for their whole lives, for all their occasions,” Greaton said with a smile. “The tradition also used to be Miss New Richmond would receive a diamond ring from Greaton’s.”

The shop also provided engraving, jewelry appraisal and repair, custom jewelry designs and special orders.

“Karen got the biggest kick at Christmas time knowing what people were getting each other for Christmas and having to keep quiet,” Gillespie said.

Regg loved the store at Christmas, describing it as “all lit up, beautiful and joyous. We were part of people’s lives and special occasions.”

Store history

W. Eben Greaton, Karen’s father and a master watchmaker who served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Colorado during World War II, opened Greaton’s Jewelry and Sporting Goods in its current location in 1950.

He apprenticed under Matt and Margaret Lyngaas, a Star Prairie couple, before and after the war. According to Greaton, the store changed its product offerings many times over the years to accommodate the needs of a changing city. At one time the store carried cameras, camera equipment, musical equipment, sporting goods, shavers and perfumes. Picture developing was available also.

Greaton’s mother, Geri, also started a bridal registry in the store, providing local brides with sterling silver flatware, fine crystal and china patterns and lovely silver plate and pewter hollowware. She also brought Josten’s class rings to town.

Greaton came back to New Richmond in the mid 1970s to take the store over from her parents. She had worked for a successful fashion merchandising school and modeling agency, Patricia Stevens College (later Lowthian College), in Minneapolis for many years before becoming an employment counselor.

“I loved it and was very good at it,” Greaton said. “But Dad needed to retire, I was getting married and wanted to raise a family in New Richmond.”

She counts the owner of the Minneapolis location of Patricia Stevens as a close friend and her mentor, and fondly recalls the British beauty’s phrase ‘bash on regardless’ as her life’s motto.

“Bash on regardless,” Gillespie said. “Karen always went about life with that attitude, no matter what.”

Allure by Greaton’s Jewelers

The family opened a second location, Allure by Greaton’s Jewelers, in downtown Stillwater (421 S. Main St. Suite 421B in the Brick Alley Building), in 2013. Regg, who has accomplished much toward becoming a GIA Graduate Gemologist and Bench Jeweler, runs the Stillwater location with his wife Ashley.

Greaton describes Allure as brand new, modern and price-pointed. They had explored opening shops in Afton, Minn., and Hudson before settling on Stillwater, where they feel they will have more of an audience in the busy downtown.

“We have a good reputation in New Richmond,” Greaton said. “You can’t buy that. That you have to earn. We don’t have that yet in Stillwater, but we hope our New Richmond customers will go there.”

The New Richmond location will continue its closing sale until further notice. The store building will mainly be used as a workspace for Allure, for now, Greaton said. Greaton and Regg urge customers to visit Allure and to check out allurebygreatons.com and greatonsjewelers.com (the online store). For more information, email greatonsjewelers.com.

A farewell poem

Karen Greaton said she processes her feelings with poetry, and wrote this for her customers:

Back in the day

When New Richmond was small

There was a bustling downtown

Now a memory is all

Our late night was Friday

That was the big day

Because everyone was out

To spend some of their pay

The Dime Store, The Daylight

And all in between

Were happy and busy

Being part of the scene

Some say it’s old fashioned

We all shop online

So there’s no need for going downtown

Just to see what you find

So here is Amazon and eBay

and big box decor

Because that’s what exists

Downtowns don’t anymore

There can be happy endings

Successful downtowns do exist

They come back from the rubble

But they must be highly wished

I’m so sorry to be closing

My heart just breaks in two

I hope you’ve felt how much I’ve loved

Being right here for you

Karen Greaton