Five and Dimed in America

A few miles from the McStop off 35W, down a road that winds along black-dirt fields and stretches into downtown Lakeville, you’ll find the last Twin Cities-area Ben Franklin five-and-dime store. Once a staple of small-town Minnesota, and the anchor in any tiny downtown, Ben Franklin was the place we all biked to on our beat-up Schwinns, the ones with the banana seats and girly bars. It always had that Ben Franklin-y smell—worn industrial carpeting, mothballs, yarn, and potpourri. Our Ben Franklin had Tupperware containers filled with penny candy, latch hook rug kits, and costume jewelry that you’d buy for your mom on her birthday. It was your destination for Pop Rocks and Wacky Paks bubblegum cards, Charleston Chews and Slopoke suckers, Laffy Taffy, and Lik-m-Aid Fun Dip.

When I arrive at the Lakeville store during a spring downpour, owner Scott Erickson is on a ladder, holding a flashlight, and visible only from the chest down. He’s moved one of the ceiling aside to locate the source of a new drip. A bucket is balanced on top of the ladder, and the tell-tale rusty rings of water spots dot the ceiling all over the store. “It’s been a really bad day,” the young woman who’s helping him says, apologizing for his gruff greeting. “He’s usually really nice.”

How often does anyone walk into a business these days and actually meet the owner? How often does anyone receive a needless apology from the owner—who is holding a big bucket of rainwater—for being gruff? A red-haired guy of medium build, Erickson is soon to be fifty, but doesn’t look it, and has owned the store for half of his life. While enterprises like SuperTarget, Fleet Farm, and Gander Mountain are thriving just off the freeway, little Ben Franklin hangs on in a quiet downtown that depends on the loyalty of a citizenry that is increasingly composed of commuters. Enggren’s grocery store across the street, which celebrated its one-hundredth birthday in March, was forced to close its doors only a month later, another victim of tight profit margins. “A grocery store is your anchor,” says Erickson, who is worried about the decrease in traffic that the absence of Enggren’s will bring. “To tell the truth, the last six months, it’s been a struggle. You need the community to support you.” And in turn, Erickson tries to supply what the community needs, and to keep prices low.

I should come back on a drier day in the fall, Erickson tells me, when more than seventy pairs of pants will be hanging from the ceiling, part of Lakeville’s homecoming celebration, a sort of commercial display of fall colors. It’s become tradition that the kids, elementary through high school (and there are now twelve elementary schools, four middle schools, and two Lakeville high schools) decorate their pants, spending anywhere from fifty to one hundred dollars to add flair—rhinestones and paint and anything else that screams school spirit. To give kids ideas, Erickson and his perky staff of local teenagers will hang pants from past years all over the store. “The kids really go wild on Homecoming,” says Erickson. It’s the kind of mom ’n’ pop touch that you won’t find at Target. Nor will you find at Target Harry the Quaker Parrot, who lives next to the counter and says “Hello” and “Pretty bird,” and busily gnaws on cardboard. Nor Marley the Golden Retriever, who watches over the store during the week.

Nor will you find at the corporate stores small, homemade pricing signs and craft suggestions, written in the cheerful bubble script of the young women who work there, and who know exactly where every little thing in the store can be found. These things include candles, raffia, Lakeville Panthers spirit wear, water pistols, greeting cards, Elmer’s glue and paperboard, bacon bits and paprika, feather boas and backpacks, beading kits and needlepoint supplies, and tables of fabric. Aluminum roasting pans and laundry detergent. White Rain shampoo and extension cords. A God Bless America shot glass. All of the things you remember, in other words, as well as the sorts of things you might need in a hurry. Not to mention such modern additions as a universal, hands-free mobile-phone adaptor.

“It’s tough,” says Erickson, “but we’re going to stick it out as long as we can. People don’t realize what they have, until it’s gone.”