On the last day of its nearly 60 years in existence, my son and I walked into Thompson’s True Value and Variety Store in Eau Claire for one last look around.
It was a sunny Saturday just before Christmas, and though I’d been a regular at the store for nearly a decade, on its last day, things felt different. For one, there were twice as many customers as usual, and while I imagined that at least a few of them were there to pick up some essential item, most, it seemed, were there to stock up on nostalgia. Which was certainly my reason for coming.
Upon learning of the store’s closing a day or so prior, I — like so many others — took the impending loss personally. I felt that its shuttering was partially my fault. If only I’d bought more security screws, or more anchor bolts, or more fruit-flavored Tootsie rolls. If only I’d purchased more paraffin wax, or more pickling vinegar or a few hundred vacuum belts.
One of my favorite things about Thompson’s was that you could purchase all of these items in a single store, while also snagging a few equally unlikely impulse buys: a ‘76 Gran Torino model kit, for instance, or a pack of pick up sticks. If you needed a couple net’s worth of live fish, Thompson’s had you covered! No rolling pin? No problem! No ice cream maker? Not for long!
But of all the items in that store, the one that most captured my eight-year-old’s attention that day was a regulation sized Wiffle ball, which, he informed me, we were in desperate need of.
“Really?” I asked. “We need a Wiffle ball?”
“Of course,” he said, handing it over. “I mean, where else are you going to find a Wiffle ball like this?”
The ball was housed in a beautifully designed orange and black box, upon which was written all sorts of verbal enticements (“Bat it! Bounce it! Safe anywhere!”). This was no knock off Wiffle ball, but the real deal, manufactured by Wiffle Ball Inc. itself.
“You know, you’re right,” I agreed. “We absolutely need this.”
Thompson’s True Value was good like that: it had what you needed, but it also had what you didn’t know you needed. It was the place you went when you wanted to fix a broken thing, not the place you went to replace the one you had. Leave it to the online retailers to give you a dozen options for windshield repair kits, Thompson’s would just sell you the one that worked.
Along with supplying the literal tools, Thompson’s employees empowered customers with the know-how, too. (And for those of us who don’t “know how” to do much of anything involving tools, their guidance often proved essential.) How many long mornings had I huddled alongside Thompson’s employees to learn the proper way to use a drain snake, or install a light fixture, or apply a bathtub repair kit to the aging tub? I always left the store feeling confident in the task ahead, and only occasionally did that confidence get me into trouble.
Much of the credit goes to store owner John Thompson, who along with his late brother, Thomas, ran the store for decades. John’s wife, Donna, too, proved vital to the store’s success. “Over time, it was like family coming through the door,” John shared in a recent interview. “We loved them, and they loved us in return. I guess that’s why I’ve had such a hard time letting go.” John’s personal touch with his customers extended well beyond business hours. “Sometimes people would call my home at 10 or 11 at night,” John said. “So I’d go on over to the store and open up so they could get what they needed.”
Despite these attributes, the store wasn’t without its drawbacks. For those who preferred a dozen options, Thompson’s wasn’t for you. And if you enjoyed anonymity, well, you’d have been better off at the big box stores. You couldn’t mix paint, you couldn’t buy lumber and I never received a rebate for anything. When I entered the store, it often felt like I was stepping back in time. And while I enjoyed the time travel, I can understand why some prefer time travel to the future, instead.
But as most of my neighbors attested, it was Thompson’s sameness that made it so appealing. More than a few shared how they’d been patronizing Thompson’s since they were kids (though it was called Ben Franklin’s then). In those days they’d regularly hop on their bikes, their pockets filled with pennies, and buy all the candy they could. Over time, those kids grew up, and their purchases changed, but most remained loyal to Thompson’s.
Though I’ve only been in Eau Claire for a decade, I understand that loyalty. Moreover, in the era of online retailers, it always felt like a small rebellion to support my neighborhood store. I didn’t mind paying a little extra if it meant talking to a human as invested in my clogged sink as I was.
“Find everything you need?” the cashier asked as my son handed her the Wiffle ball.
“I think so,” I smiled.
Neither of us mentioned that this was our last transaction. Instead, we just pretended like it was any other day. With stiff upper lips, we thanked each other and bid farewell.
On the walk home that day, it occurred to me that it’s easy to lament the things we lose, but sometimes it’s hard to understand why. As I tried to explain to my son what we were losing, my words kept coming up short.
How to describe to him what felt like the end of an era?
“At Thompson’s,” I managed at last, “it was always more about people than plungers. I guess that’s what I’ll miss the most.”
He nodded like he understood.
But understanding a problem is different than fixing it.
And where would I go to get the proper tool for that?