Staying Power: the Valley’s Oldest Stores

By Beacon Staff

For Lisa Poler, history is not a relic. It is her workspace.

In 1891, William Whipps purchased the lot on which Poler’s Wheeler Jewelry sits from the Conrad brothers, who were original pioneers of Kalispell. Then in 1907, Arthur Hollensteiner bought the building – First National Bank at the time – for $7,500. The next year a jewelry store opened, then passed through three families of owners before arriving in Poler’s hands in 1979.

Poler pulls out copies of the original deeds to double-check the dates. She is enchanted by history and her store is defined by it. The original two-story bank safe, from the turn of the 20th century, is still used, as are display cases that came by train in 1908 from Sheboygan, Wis. Wheeler Jewelry is the oldest retail business left in the Flathead Valley.

“The thing about history is if you don’t support it, it doesn’t last,” Poler said. “I love history and it’s cool to be a part of it.”

Through the ever-changing tides of Flathead’s evolution, Wheeler Jewelry has not been swept away. In the decades since Poler bought the store from the Wheeler family, retail hubs have emerged on the outskirts of Kalispell, breaking up people’s shopping rhythms and forcing new business strategies.

Now with the Internet, Poler finds herself in the unique position of simultaneously preserving history and morphing with technology. Today, her Web site is every bit as valuable as her century-old safe, which houses many of the shop’s treasures.

“I’m re-inventing myself, as well as everybody is,” Poler said.

Though not common, other businesses have also called the Flathead Valley home for multiple decades. Wheaton’s, just a couple of blocks away from Wheeler’s, has been in the same location since 1918, selling bikes as it did in the beginning but also offering a diverse ensemble of other products. Up the road in Whitefish, the Toggery and Nelson’s Hardware have been in business since the late 1940s.

Flowers by Hansen, Western Outdoor Store and Rocky Mountain Outfitter are decades-old mainstays in downtown Kalispell, while the Western Building Center has expanded to locations in nine towns over the last 60 years. In Bigfork, the Jug Tree and Eva Gates Homemade Preserves are celebrating their 60th anniversaries this year. Columbia Falls, long the industrial hub of the valley, doesn’t have a rich retail history but in recent years has found a niche as an antique destination.

To survive the decades, amid the gradual transition away from the Flathead’s logging and railroad base, longtime retail shop owners have largely stuck to their guns, essentially selling now what they did in the beginning. The brands and technologies are different, but the backbone is the same. Yet, at the right times, the owners have made key business decisions to adapt to their changing surroundings.

At Wheaton’s, bicycles have constituted more than 50 percent of total sales since Margaret Lekander bought the shop in 1976. With occasional ebbs and flows, that fact has remained.

But the other half of sales is a business of many different faces, or a “jigsaw puzzle” that Lekander said the Wheatons originally put together and she has maintained. The store once sold toys. Today, longboards are popular, with any number of other items also available depending on market trends and various factors.

“We’re constantly re-niching,” Lekander said. “We don’t dally with our decisions.”

But one thing that has never changed is the store’s location on First Avenue West, which is as important for business reasons as nostalgic resonance.

“When times were difficult, the one thing that saved us was location, location, location,” Lekander said. “People knew where to find us.”

When Rick Nelson’s father opened Nelson’s Hardware in Whitefish in 1948, there were seven other hardware stores in town. Whitefish was a tough logging and railroad town, with a bustling blue-collar population that could use a few good hardware stores. Butcher shops, tailors and shoemakers set up shop downtown as well.

“I can go downtown and point at the buildings and tell you the stores that used to be here,” said Rick Nelson, the current owner of Nelson’s Hardware. “It was a different world entirely than it is today.”

Eventually the other hardware stores began trickling away, fading along with the town’s blue-collar base, until only the Western Building Center and Nelson’s were left. Then, just south in Kalispell, Lowe’s and Home Depot opened, hitting Nelson a bit though “not nearly what I expected.”

“It’s a reflection of how we do business,” Nelson said. “We’re a customer-oriented business.”

Still, he laments: “Everything has gone away from the small guy. It’s gone toward the mass merchant.”

“I don’t know if it was anything we did right,” Nelson said of staying in business for so long. “We’re just probably more persistent.”

Poler and Lekander express a similar sentiment, acknowledging the improbability of remaining open for so long and expressing gratitude for their loyal customer bases. And Poler points out that she is in a business that still encourages hands-on shopping, rather than clicking a mouse. Diamonds, after all, are forever.

“People still want to see it – I want to see it,” Poler said. “I can’t buy a diamond on the Internet. I need to see it and hold it up under a microscope.”

Lekander said another common thread between the longtime shops is the fact that the owners can be found working the floor most days. Customers like to see the owners, she said. But she says it hasn’t been easy, particularly when the box stores came in the 1990s. She recalls the Christmas season of 1996, which she said was like “a party that nobody came to.”

“Sometimes, against all odds, we kept running it,” Lekander said.

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