BEMIDJI -- When the coronavirus pandemic forced their Patterson’s Clothing store to close for two months last spring, Molly and Jeff Miller sometimes sat in their car waiting for customers to arrive for curbside pickup of their purchases.
It’s a scene that brings back thoughts of 90 years ago, when Molly’s great-grandfather, Abe Patterson, founded the store on the corner of Third Street and Beltrami Avenue in the midst of the Great Depression. In order to conserve electricity, Abe would sometimes sit in his car and wait until a customer arrived before going inside and turning on the lights.
Both scenarios illustrate the determination of the Patterson family, whose store has adapted and thrived for 90 years. The pandemic is just the latest of challenges for a locally owned, Main Street retailer.
“It was kind of eerie,” Molly said. “We were closed unless someone drove up. We were waiting for customers, and then we’d turn all the lights on when they got here. We didn’t want people to think they could just walk in off the street.”
The store has been run by married couples since the 1950s when Abe Patterson passed it on to his son and daughter-in law, Ron and Ralyhe. Two decades later they passed it on to their son and daughter-in-law, Steve and Sally. In April 2018 they passed it on to their daughter and son-in-law, Molly and Jeff Miller.
“It’s humbling,” Molly said. “As a girl growing up in the store I used to run around in the basement and crawl under the racks, and I did dream of taking over the store someday. Though in college I kind of got away from it a little bit, it was always in the back of my mind that this could be. It’s like that warm, fuzzy feeling inside to know that I did it, and it’s actually happening.”
Steve Patterson said when he and Sally were ready to retire, they weren’t sure of the store’s future until Molly and Jeff decided to take over.
“We would have closed if they hadn’t,” Steve said. “We were ready to retire. I was 67 and had been doing this since I was 13, 14 years old. We would have done just what Herington’s (Shoes) did unless somebody walked in and said, ‘Can I buy your business?’ And Molly and Jeff kind of knew that. I like that the business will continue in the family. Sally and I have been doing it since 1974. It becomes your life; you don’t want to see it go away. But on the other hand you don’t want to be in here six days a week forever. The younger, new blood is great for the business. If you’re going to keep it going for multiple generations you need that.”
Keeping it going has been a challenge for Molly and Jeff in 2020. In addition to shutting the store down for two months, it prevented area schools from holding spring proms and weddings were postponed. That put a dent in Patterson’s tuxedo rental business.
“We would have several shipments of tuxes come in,” Molly said, “and then a few days before the wedding they’d call and say, ‘Our venue just called and said we can’t have our wedding.’ The whole idea of events being canceled really impacted us because that’s why people buy suits, sport coats, rent tuxes. That was the bigger hit than anything.
“But it’s going well regardless of the pandemic,” she added. “We’ve had a lot of reassurance from customers. One who was just in, she said, ‘I’ve never returned anything I bought for my son here. I’ve told 50 people to come here because everything is good.’ Hearing stuff like that just kind of reassures the decision and solidifies why we did what we did.”
They’re also facing competition from online retailers, although Steve Patterson says it’s only the latest business challenge.
“There’s always been competition," Steve said. “My dad used to say, ‘How are we going to survive with Dayton’s? We can’t compete with that.’ But we always have. Molly and Jeff’s business is really strong. There’s certainly a desire for people to touch and feel and try on clothing.”
He said that personal interaction with customers also means a lot to the owners, as Molly and Jeff are quickly learning.
“It’s so much more than having loyal customers,” Steve said. “You really get to know families. You’d get to know about their kids, their health and their travel. You develop relationships with them and their families.”
Sally Patterson agreed, adding, “The store was a social center as well as a business center.”
As the store celebrates 90 years in business, Molly said she is proud to keep it in the family.
“There’s just something about Bemidji, not just the store, but raising a family in Bemidji,” said Molly, who met Jeff when they were both students at Winona State University. They’ve been married for five years and have two young daughters.
“I love this town,” she said. “It’s a nice place to raise a family. I hope we can carry it on to our kids, to another generation.”