TWO RIVERS — When A.J. Schroeder and her sister, Theresa Kronforst, took over Schroeder’s Department Store it would have been easy, and perhaps less stressful, to shutter the doors of the longtime business.
Their father, who had spent decades at the helm, had just been diagnosed with cancer, two longtime employees had recently left the company and the country was mired in a deep recession that sparked massive layoffs, bankruptcies and foreclosures.
In 2008, selling shirts, shoes, ties, dresses and just about anything else was a tough gig.
But Schroeder and Kronforst, often times over beers at Kurtz’s Pub & Deli down the street, ultimately came up with a plan to allow the legacy of their great-grandfather and his three brothers to continue 127 years after the store’s doors opened downtown in this city of about 11,000 residents.
Their success comes as most downtown department stores in the state have closed and some of the biggest national retailers are contracting, have gone out of business or shuttered their brick-and-mortar operations in favor of on-line sales.
“The business started on service and quality of merchandise and we’ve never strayed from that. And if we have to tighten our belts, well, then we do more with less. But you have to keep offering the knowledgeable service,” said Schroeder, as she stood near the store’s front counter near the shoe and women’s clothing departments. “It’s the customers that keep our doors open and you have to pay attention to that. I think a lot of businesses have forgotten what brought them to the game. They step over dollars to pick up pennies.”
The most recent and locally glaring example of retail demise can be found with Bon-Ton Stores, headquartered in Milwaukee and York, Pennsylvania. The bankrupt company’s stores have been shuttered, leaving more than 1.5 million square-feet of space vacant across the state, including a combined 280,000-square-feet at East Towne and West Towne malls in Madison. An Indiana company, CSC Generation, announced last week that it had signed a deal with Bon-Ton that would give it the
rights to use the names of its subsidiary department stores, such as Boston Store, Younkers and Herberger’s among others. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported last week that the new Bon-Ton would emphasize online sales but is considering reopening stores in five states including Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Sears stores are closing, Toys R Us has sunk, Kohl’s is downsizing the size of its stores and shopping malls are replacing retailers with more experiential businesses like movie theaters, bowling alleys and brewpubs.
Locally owned department stores have been gradually disappearing over the years and are now a rarity of the retail landscape. Schuette Brothers in Manitowoc closed in 1994 after 145 years of business, Fischer’s is gone from downtown Watertown, Lauerman Brothers has disappeared from Marinette, and Manchesters in Madison and Doerflinger’s in La Crosse have been shuttered for years.
Those that remain include Nina’s in Spring Green, founded in 1911 and owned by the same family since 1916. Sheboygan Falls has Evans, an 18,500-square-foot store founded in 1936; Bradley’s in Delavan was established in 1852 and has been in the same location since 1887; and the Tomah Cash Department Store opened in 1900 and has three floors and 30,000 square feet of merchandise.
Schroeder’s, just a few blocks from where the East Twin and West Twin rivers merge into Lake Michigan, was founded in 1891 by Peter Schroeder. He was then joined by his three brothers, including A.J. Schroeder’s and Kronforst’s great-grandfather, Joseph, who joined the business in 1893.
The store was originally located across the street from its current location until 1899, when Peter Joseph Schroeder, the father of the four Schroeder brothers, provided the funding for a three-story building at the corner of 17th and Washington streets. The brick for the building came into the port of Sturgeon Bay and was shipped to Two Rivers by rail.
Late last month, a nearly nine-month, $25,000 fundraising project for a new exterior clock sign came to a close when the old sign and clock, installed in the 1950s but battered by snow, ice and wind, was replaced. Some of the money came from an online social media campaign but the majority of the money came from customers who offered up donations both big and small.
“It’s very iconic to the building,” said Schroeder, 40. “It’s one of those things where you’re genuinely touched by people.”
The store survived two World Wars, the Great Depression and most recently by carrying well-known brands from Woolrich, Tribal, Savane, Pendleton, Asics, Birkenstock, Dansko and Columbia. The store offers free gift wrapping, measures each pair of feet for shoes, does custom measuring for shirts and suits, provides alterations, and since the mid-1990s has had a coffee shop. The 1903 Kohler bubbler near the men’s department still works.
One of the other keys to its modern success has been downsizing. Schroeder’s uses only half of its 18,000 square feet of floor space. The rest has been rented to smaller businesses that complement the retail offerings of Schroeder’s.
“Part of the problem is that because of the recession we had to shrink our inventory. We couldn’t keep buying at the volume that we were because people weren’t shopping and it left open holes in the store,” said Kronforst, 37. “It allowed us to utilize our actual footprint, brought in a different customer base and it generated rental income for us. It also gave other businesses a chance to be in a known building. A.J. (who came up with the idea) always says it’s like a mall without walls.”
The first new retailer was Read Apple Toy Shoppe. It was founded in 2007 in the home of Pam Duveneck, a now-retired school teacher. In 2012 she expanded with a small display at Schroeder’s next to the coffee shop but in October 2017 moved her operation to the department store’s basement where she has room for interactive displays, a play area and a table for customers to test out board games. She also has a customer rewards program and returns 10 percent of sales to her customers after six purchases.
“The advantage is all of us working together,” Duveneck said of the other retailers in the building. “We all bring in different customers so people who maybe wouldn’t have found us otherwise or wouldn’t have walked through are here anyway. We’re all small. We’re just trying to survive.”
In 2013, Intertwined Yarn Shop moved into space on the second floor and was joined a year later by the Quilt Shop of Two Rivers. However, the quilt shop moved earlier this year to its own retail space down the block. Home Sweet Home, a home decor shop, also opened on the first floor in 2014.
“We kind of use it as like incubator space for businesses,” Kronforst said. “If they outgrow it, great.”