Solon Springs hardware store more than hammers
Meg Thoreson knew little about hammers, power saws or house paint and had never been inside Solon Springs Hardware when she and her husband, Ken, considered buying the small town Wisconsin business in 2001.
In fact, Thoreson was working as a sales manager for a major telecommunication company and traveling all over the country. She had a nice position, good benefits and Cellular One was a big player in a fast growing industry.
And Ken was busy, too. He worked construction and spent a lot of time on jobs in the Hayward area.
But the couple was looking for something more.
"We spent a lot of time apart due to our jobs," she said. "So we took a look at the hardware store that was for sale and really thought there was a lot of potential there."
Thoreson, a former director at the Entrepreneur Fund in downtown Duluth now running her own consulting firm, reflected on how she and her husband purchased a small business to strengthen their relationship and serve a small town cabin community.
"In northern Minnesota or northern Wisconsin, owning a bar or restaurant is pretty typical but neither of us had that attraction," she said. Instead of hospitality, the Thoresons chose hardware.
The couple had some experience in retail sales and, as a contractor, Ken was familiar with building materials and tools. They put together a business plan, met with suppliers and talked to other people in the hardware world.
"We really found out that a hardware store is kind of a reflection of the community," she said. "So while there are things that are the same in all stores, like tools and nuts and bolts, there's also a lot of things you can bring into a hardware store that helps serve the community."
The Thoresons decided to buy the store and make the place an important and relevant hub for Solon Springs residents and its many vacation visitors.
Located about 32 miles south of Superior, Solon Springs Hardware occupied a 5,000-square-foot building near the railroad tracks downtown. It had three employees. Upper St. Croix Lake, surrounded by shorefront homes and seasonal cabins, was just a five-minute walk away. The store had been a community fixture since the early 20th century, but changes in the retail industry, like the internet and big-box chains, were a growing threat.
"In 2002 we still were in the early stages of Internet retailing and so the store definitely had to be relevant in the community and that's become even more important today," Thoreson said.
At first, Ken dedicated himself full time to managing the store and overseeing needed property improvements. One year later Thoreson left Cellular One to join the Solon Springs team. The couple had realized a dream and started working side by side, between the aisles and behind the cash register.
Then tragedy struck.
In 2004, an early morning electrical fire burned the store to the ground. An engineer on a passing train reported the blaze and by the time firefighters arrived all was lost. The Thoresons were properly insured but they had to make a decision.
"We both attribute (the business plan) to the tool that helped us hit the ground running," said Thoreson. "That helped us decide: Were we going to go big, or were we going to go home?"
The Thoresons went big.
Nine months later, Solon Springs Hardware store was reborn as Solon Springs Mercantile. A new 18,000-square-foot building was constructed on the four-lane highway bypass west of downtown. The store was filled with much more than hardware. The Thoresons added sporting goods, power equipment, clothing, liquor, gardening, and a gift shop and now employed 17 people.
"We're 15 to 30 miles from stores that carry those products," said Thoreson. Solon Springs Mercantile thrives because it is convenient and sells what northwoods cabin owners, hunters, anglers and small town families need. "Our mission is there to save them time." she said.
A coffee shop didn't work but the Thoresons plan to add a greenhouse to the property soon.
"There's different things we've tried and we continue to try over time," she said. "We spend a lot of time at buying markets, looking at new trends, looking at what happens in other markets. We try to just find the best merchandise and the best services we can provide for our customers."
Thoreson grew up in the Stillwater area and moved north for school at the College of St. Scholastica before settling in northern Wisconsin. She said her experience rebuilding the Salon Springs store has led her into still another career: Guiding other small town, small business owners through growth and new development.
The Entrepreneur Fund was established 30 years ago to support northeast and central Minnesota businesses in growth and expansion. Thoreson worked for the group as a consultant in 2011 and landed a full time position two years later. After six years with firm she decided to establish her own firm: Arnson Solutions.
She now has two full-time jobs.
"My two lives really intersect in that I want to see strong small communities," she said. In her role as a consultant, Thoreson provides strategic planning and goal setting services and shares her own Solon Springs work experiences with other small businesses. "It's a plus to be able to go to work everyday and see other small businesses grow, not just my own."
For example, Thoreson is working with a central Minnesota firm to distribute a Minnesota made product nationwide.
"I get a lot of energy from just seeing businesses succeed," she said. "In the store, I get a lot of energy working on a Saturday having people come and go and tell us what their doing with the products that they're purchasing. I get a lot of energy working with clients and seeing their business successes."
After 16 years of running a hardware store, Thoreson has learned business isn't all about hammers, power saws and house paint.
"During the day to day you can lose sight of the appreciation the community has for your business," she said. "I think that's probably the most heartwarming part of owning a business — the gratitude that you get from your customers and how it positively affects their lives as far as having time to go out in the woods and hunt or down to the lake and fish with their grandkids."
Mark Nicklawske is a Duluth freelance writer and arts critic for the Duluth Media Group.