In 1938, so the story goes, Norman Schappacher traded in the keys to his Buick for the down payment on Tucker’s Billiard Parlor. He changed the name to Norm’s Place, but kept the pool tables, and sold “everything in magazines, newspapers, ammunition, fishing tackle, soft drinks, candy, tobaccos, and pipes,” according to his inaugural ad in the Daily Inter Lake.
When World War II pulled Norm into the U.S. Army, his wife Eleanore ran the place. Sometime around 1949, the Schappachers changed the shop’s name to Norm’s News, reflecting the quantity of newspapers, magazines and paperback books they stocked. There’s no record of when the ammunition sales phased out, but it’s a good bet that Norm’s stocked shells for as long as the basement shooting range was active — for a period of time from the mid-1940s to early ’60s, the Kalispell Junior Rifle club met weekly to fire .22-caliber rifles at targets affixed to old railroad ties, right under the floorboards of the magazine racks and pool tables.
Back then, Norm’s wasn’t the squeaky-clean, family-friendly destination it is today. Sure, Norm flipped burgers on a hot plate in the middle of the lunch counter and churned up milkshakes, but the prevailing sentiment in town was that it wasn’t a place for good girls to go.
“Yesterday, I talked to two ladies who came in, one who was, I think, 93, and she said, ‘We couldn’t come in here way back when; I’m so excited we can be here now!’” says Beth Pirrie, the current owner of Norm’s. “I don’t know if it was her parents saying, ‘you don’t go to Norm’s,’ but I hear that a lot about the old days: ‘No, no, no, it’s all boys and they’re smoking in the back, and you don’t go in there.’”
Ken Siderius, 86, has been coming to Norm’s since the late 1940s, first as a teenager and now part of the regular retired men’s coffee group. His early memories agree with that sentiment.
“My mother used to tell us, ‘stay out of Norm’s News,’ because it was a pool hall, and in those days mothers didn’t like pool halls,” he remembers. “It wasn’t the ideal space for kids to be, according to mothers, but according to kids, it was a good place to be and have fun. It was always well-run — if boys got into a scuffle, they’d push them out the back door into the alley and kind of quit worrying about them. Anybody that grew up here, I think the first thing you probably did when you went to high school, you went down to see what is this thing called Norm’s News.”
After three decades of teenagers, pool tables and periodicals, the Schappachers decided to retire. Barry Wood and Bill Shiell moved from Great Falls to buy the business, but quickly realized it wouldn’t support two families. Wood moved on to other endeavors, while the Shiells stayed on to become synonymous with the neighborhood-gathering place at the north end of Main Street.
“My friends called me ‘Norm’ as a high school nickname,” Dave Shiell, Bill’s son, says. “My dad was there every day. Aside from cooking and waitressing, he did everything to keep the place going. He’d bring home the laundry; we’d wash up all the towels at night and fold them up for him to take back.”
The Shiell era was a bridge between the original Norm’s and the current one. Tobacco cases and humidors lined the wall near the front window, while the extensive selection of reading material remained in the center of the store. The far-back wall was what Dave calls “the 7-Eleven of its day,” with dairy coolers and bottled soda as well as shelves of bread and canned goods. Norm’s also evolved into a full-scale restaurant, serving food from 7 a.m. to midnight.
Bill Shiell passed away in 1987. His wife, Pat, had her own career as an oncology nurse — for a time, Kalispell’s radiation oncology center was named after her — and in 1989 she sold Norm’s to Gordon Pirrie, who had owned Western Outdoor since 1970. He opened the brick arch doorway between the clothing store and the soda fountain, officially incorporating one longtime family business into another.
Gordon ran it much as the Shiells did for almost a decade until, as he recalls, “I got tired of trying to find cooks and help.” In 1997, he leased it to a couple from Portland who tried unsuccessfully to run a trattoria in the space. The Pirries then re-opened Norm’s, scaling it back to the crowd-pleasing hits it still serves: burgers, fries and ice cream. And then there was the candy.
“We put the candy in here in ’99,” Gordon says, referring to the expansive array of nostalgic and novelty treats that encircle the store. “My grandson, Gavin, was 2 or 3 years old. We got the candy, 6,000 pounds of candy, and he and my daughter-in-law Beth and a few other people were in here. And every package we opened was like Christmas morning for him. Anyhow, come 2 o’clock it was time for Gavin’s nap. She took him and he was so mad, he was screaming and yelling, he wanted to stay and help with the candy.”
Gordon chuckles at the memory. “He’s working here now — he’s actually going to be a grad student in Vermont this summer. All the kids have worked here.”
Gordon sold Norm’s to his daughter-in-law Beth in 2009. Her philosophy has been to maintain Norm’s as a family-friendly community institution: a place to get a good burger and try a treat from America’s past, like an ice cream soda or a chocolate phosphate. The biggest change under Beth may not have even registered with most longtime Flathead Valley residents: It’s now called Norm’s Soda Fountain.
“I want to keep that emotional connection to the community, that we’re still Norm’s, but we’re way less news than we used to be,” she explains. “And if you want people to come in off the street that don’t know us, if you say Norm’s News, they think, ‘Oh, that’s a newsstand.’”
She gestures around the restaurant toward a couple families mulling over the menu, the table of men finishing up their coffee hour, the teenage soda jerks running the grill and weighing bags of candy, and says, laughing, “When you come in here, do you think newsstand?”
Katie Cantrell contributes regularly to Flathead Living. Find her at www.katiecantrellwrites.com, or on Instagram and Facebook @KatieCantrellWrites.