Paul’s Discount Finally Calls It Quits

Even today, in 2019, there are still local retailers. But as of late last month there is one less. Paul’s Discount, a small two-store chain in Iowa, finally closed the end of July. It wasn’t a fancy place, but it was an honest place. And their customers tended to be remarkably loyal. But times change, people change, profits dwindle despite busy stores. And progress, for better or worse, slows for no one.

I remember, years ago, my dad taking me to the Iowa City store after my annual check up at University Hospital. Years later, circa 1997-98 when I started driving myself around, I’d go up to Clinton in my ’91 Volvo 940SE, just to go for a ride, and check out the store there. Only those who remember being recently licensed to drive may understand why it was a thrill to drive thirty miles to a small city north of home base, with nothing much more than a few stores, a small downtown, a marina and GM and Lincoln-Mercury dealerships. It was a nice drive, along the river road from Davenport, via LeClaire and Princeton.

For those of you in the Midwest, it was kind of like Farm and Fleet, only in a smaller size. They had everything, from feed and seed to model kits, snacks and tools. I didn’t buy things every time I visited, but I always checked out the Clinton and Iowa City stores if I happened to be in town for the day. I remember seeing their semi trucks semi-regularly when driving on Interstate 80.

Probably the coolest thing I got there was 12-14 years ago, when they had a 1/18 scale ’68 AMC AMX in pink, a replica of the one given to Playboy’s Playmate of the Year in 1968. It’s still sitting in a display case in my dining room (of COURSE I have model cars in my dining room, doesn’t everyone?), along with a bunch of other model cars.

Back in June I was in Iowa City for the monthly cruise nite at the mall, and while heading out to the I-380 bypass, noticed the Paul’s on Highway 6 was gone. Whoa, when did that happen? Well, turns out it happened in summer of 2018. I was kind of surprised. I’m usually in IC several times a year in summer for car shows and visiting relatives. Had it really been that long? Apparently so.

So the next time I went up to the lake, I stopped in Clinton on the way up to see if the other store was still there. It was, but it was closing. A family affair from day one back in 1964, the owners were finally winding things down.

Retail has gotten ever more cutthroat, and with online shopping more and more people are ordering from the comfort of their home. I don’t get why being a shut-in is the latest thing many are aspiring to, but I digress.

Anyway, the store was getting a little threadbare at the time, but there was still a lot of stuff. I did snag this little ’60s Porsche 911 model, because what the heck.

And then, on Friday, 7/19, I was on my way up to the lake, again, when I decided that Big Rhonda, my 2004 Town Car, and myself, should stop off for one last goodbye. I was looking for water shoes, so I could get into the lake without slipping on the algae-covered rocks in my bare feet. Sadly they didn’t have any. I got a pair from the Clinton Walmart instead. Read into that whatever you will. But I walked the entire store, and took the pictures you see before you.

A little souvenir of a little store I used to like, now gone. I wasn’t exactly a regular customer, as there never was a store in the Quad Cities, but I enjoyed checking the place out when I could. All the best to the folks who worked there. I hope they all land on their feet.

25 Replies to “Paul’s Discount Finally Calls It Quits”

  1. Avatardejal

    “Retail has gotten ever more cutthroat, and with online shopping more and more people are ordering from the comfort of their home. I don’t get why being a shut-in is the latest thing many are aspiring to, but I digress.”

    Because they hate the fact that they spend 2+ hours to find a $10 item in multiple stores and can’t find it. Or, they have to hit 3 or 4 stores to complete their shopping list. Not everyone in the world gets their rocks off shopping. Equating online shopping and being a shut-in is a real reach.

    My aunt would have eaten this place up. When she died, I asked people if they wanted the crap acquired at places like these. Nope. It all went to the dump.

    What are the odds that “Paul” has done on-line shopping?
    What are the odds the stuff stocked on the shelves came from the same Chinese sweat shops as the stuff on the shelves at Walmart?
    If so, why does “Paul” get a bye on product from anonymous creators but I’m expected to be touchy/feeling over a local business?

    No one owes Paul’s a living. No one owes that store concept a life.

    Reply
  2. AvatarPatrick King

    Nice article Tom. Bittersweet though.

    On the South Shore of Boston it was Benny’s. Same idea: family owned, started in Rhode Island in 1924, 31 locations including Plymouth (my local store) and Cape Cod. All the long-time employees knew where everything was and could actually answer questions. Bigger than Paul’s but no match for Walmart.

    Closed all stores in 2017.

    Reply
  3. Avatar-Nate

    I read this bittersweet article thinking I remember a similar store near Boston, Ma. and then the name pops up : Benny’s .

    I hate shopping but I miss stores like this .

    -Nate

    Reply
  4. Avatarsgeffe

    The Toledo area had a chain of General Stores run by The Anderson’s, a locally-headquartered, formerly family-run grain/fertilizer/agribusiness corporation. It started in the ‘50s, IIRC, as a place where farmers could go to shop for housewares, tools, etc., when they came in to drop their grain harvests.

    These stores had a little bit of everything, including quality tools, plumbing supplies, work clothing, lumber, you name it! They also had all kinds of gourmet-level food, and absolutely delicious fresh baked goods, to go along with a full grocery section, a beer shop and wine cellar which was the envy of anything, with $200 bottles of Dom Perignon alongside exotic beers long before craft beer was hip, as well as a huge selection of produce, most of it sourced locally when in season—fresh strawberries in June, probably picked the same day, apples fresh from the local orchard, bicolor corn, right off the stalk! Their lawn and garden department was also huge, with a greenhouse which had as nice an array of plants and flowers as any medium-sized nursery; then in October or so, much of that space would transform into an area where just about every Christmas decoration imaginable would be on display! All at reasonable prices, although as my folks and I always joked, you were as far ahead if you could have just dropped a $50 into the collection plate every time you walked in the door! A true one-stop shop! In the late ‘90s, they brought in a local butcher to run the meat department, obtained one of the first licenses to sell HoneyBaked products on-site, and even convinced the famous Toledo Hungarian restaurant Tony Packo’s, of M*A*S*H fame (called out several times in the series by the transvestite Cpl. Max Klinger, played by Toledo native Jamie Farr) to open small “express” locations inside the stores.

    A trip to the Anderson’s was a weekly staple for my folks, and my Dad made them a fortune by purchasing supplies for my parents’ boats—they even carried MerCruiser-specific parts, marinized stuff for harsher conditions than a generic AC-Delco part would encounter under the hood of a car. Their garden and flower beds were all from that store, and you couldn’t swing a dead cat in their house without hitting something bought from there! Lots of folks in the Toledo area did the same!

    The place also exuded good old-fashioned family values!! Everyone had a smile on their face! Lots of folks met their spouses while working there, or across their other divisions. Some people started hauling grocery carts in from the parking lot, and ended up with good jobs after college. Invariably, you’d run into someone you knew there! Some folks formed friendships with strangers who happened to be there at the same time each week!

    Unfortunately, the brother running the Retail Division didn’t have quite the business acumen of the rest of the family, and as a result, at some point, the Retail Division became a perpetual money-loser and drain on the balance sheet. Instead of concentrating on doing the best on a local level, he decided to try to expand into other areas, including a couple locations in the Columbus area. Then, in an attempt to branch out and diversify offerings, he thought he’d try to make the General Store the Toledo version of B, B & B; pillowcases, mattresses, and other frou-frou! That didn’t work either! Even though the stores were full, they were still losing money! But they were still the public face of the company, something unique! When you were sitting at a Mud Hens game and saw that company name advertised on the outfield fence, you knew “ahh..that’s where I got those chocolate chocolate-chip muffins that were the size of a small plate, or the focaccia bread that was so fresh, you could pull it apart right from the bag and dip it into a little olive oil!”

    Then in 2015 or 2016, The Anderson’s hired its first CEO from outside the family, from a grain background. Everyone in the Retail Division pretty much knew what was going to happen—the Retail Division “didn’t fit the company’s mission.” (The company also dumped a ton of money into a new headquarters building, which had the locals up in arms. It would take more column-inches to explain it, and this post is already TL;DR!) They announced they were pulling the plug on MLK Day, 2017. The stores were liquidated in June of that year! People who had literally spent their careers at those stores, most notably the wine steward at the flagship store, were out of a job! The public face of a company, to me, is more valuable than a rounding error on a balance sheet!

    Same thing as this store in Iowa—the real reason, besides the bungled management, was the race-to-the-bottom caused by Wally-World and other purveyors of Chinese junk!

    For my part, I just hate the fact that the “best” baked goods in town is the dreck at the local Kroger (which expanded into a monolithic store so big that two years later, I still can’t find my way around, and which sucks a bit of my soul every time I have to go in the door); the curbside order pickup is a Godsend—let SOMEONE ELSE navigate the maze, it costs me more to try it than the $4.95 they charge, mostly my SANITY! And you have to buy tools from Home Despot or Blowes! And on! And on!

    Reply
    • Avatarrambo furum

      I recommend the book “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture” by Ellen Ruppel Shell. Discount places like this, presumably focusing on low price over service, variety, or quality, were once the disruptors. Now the societal shift that they created has been their undoing as an even cheaper route has opened.

      I prefer to buy things in person, but the generic lowest-common-denominator offerings typically seen in brick and mortar (at least outside the lavish grocery stores with their option overload) are unsatisfactory. Nobody really likes to talk about the fact that the shopping experience suffers due to demographic shifts. It turns out that diversity of cultures is not fun when shopping in a public place. I don’t want to hear foreign tongues or cope with mixed notions of what constitutes walking pace or personal space.

      I see on Paul’s faceberg page that they are selling memorial t-shirts online, which is very meta. What I don’t see is mention of the family name.

      Reply
      • Avatar-Nate

        Just TAKE A DAMN BATH OCCASIONALLY and I’ll be O.K. with the Hoi Polloi .

        For more fun on this subject, go spend some funny time @ thepeopleofwallmart.something

        -Nate

        Reply
    • AvatarAoLetsGo

      The alternative version of this story is Grand Rapids based Meijer. Little old Meijer stores go toe to toe with Walmart and kick their butt doing it. Sam Walton knew these many years ago and tried to buy the company but Fred told him to pound sand. Sure their customer service is not what it used to be, but compared to the other big box stores they give back to the community so so much more. By the way I did shop the flaghip Anderson Toledo store once and that it was a cool and interesting store.

      https://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20111130/FREE/111139987/his-name-s-on-the-store-but-he-leaves-much-more-on-the-landscape-of

      Reply
    • Tom KlockauTom Klockau Post author

      Why, whatever do you mean?

      Ha. Yeah, a couple folks messaged me earlier this week. Why run the site when you can talk the people writing articles on it for free into running it for free too? 🙂

      Reply
      • AvatarMike M

        That is a very funny comment about the other site.

        It really is a shame what happened with stores and where everything is made.

        No-one in the stores have any in depth knowledge about what they are selling, and everything sold is disposable.
        I realize I’m generalizing but the large corporations do not value the customer facing staff having extensive product or institutional knowledge. The workers are just a cost on the balance sheet.

        I guess its hard to quantify the value a knowledgeable happy staff in the annual report.

        Reply
        • Avatarsgeffe

          And as I said, it’s hard to quantify the value of a “public face” of a local company!

          In the case of the company I cited, I give them another 3-5 years until the founding family wants one last big payday, and the idiot CEO they hired is ready for his golden parachute, and they’ll sell (out their soul) to one of the big agri-conglomerates, like an ADM, and close up shop here, maybe leaving their workers at the local elevators and river terminal with jobs, but all other signs of their Toledo presence will vani$h!

          Reply
        • Avatarrambo furum

          I never experienced Home Depot when it supposedly had well-informed floor staff, but I certainly recall the time when every Radio Shack employee was at least an electronics hobbyist of some sort. That was last century. For over a decade, the the RS experience has been mouth-breathers pushing cell phones. I can’t mourn that.

          A few weeks back I went to a liquor store and received a surplus of advice and suggestions, insightful and useful ones too, following a simple question. Two employees spent a minute and a half or so each with me, but I definitely left with a purchase where I’d walked out empty-handed elsewhere. Of course I’ll be back.

          I can’t comment on Nordstrom, as I haven’t been there in a long time, but they once had the fantastic customer service that made you leave with a smile after having paid more than you expected to for things you were initially only casually browsing. Big box stores call their staff associates, but sales staff needs to be more than cashiers.

          Reply
  5. AvatarJames

    Good article, enjoyed it. I fail to understand why people get so exercised over this happening. It’s been going on for centuries and will continue well past our time. IIRC it is called progress or march of time. In my many decades, have witnessed many stores, chains, manufacturers, brands, fads and even countries appear, grow, decline and die. Just the way of things IMO.

    Reply
    • Avatarsgeffe

      It’s the race to the bottom that drives you crazy! You had good service at the local hardware store where everyone knew where everything is, and now, you’re lucky sometimes if someone can tell you in what aisle the hammers are located!

      You call an 800 number, and you used to get someone on the other end who actually wanted to help you! Now, you’re lucky if you can even begin to hold a conversation in English without having someone who speaks fluent Hindi beside you to translate, and things just deteriorate from there if you have an issue that cannot be resolved on the script in front of them!

      All to save a few bucks on a TV! Not that it’ll last more than five years before some circuit board fritzes-out because of one bad solder joint, and you end up junking it! Heck, you can’t even get decades out of major appliances, which used to be a given!

      Reply
      • AvatarJames

        Too true, last week placed two support calls that yielded near unintelligible support. In the past I’ve always gone upmarket on white goods and the like. TV is close to 20 yrs old and still going strong. Our fridges and microwaves are on their last legs and we’ve barely gotten 7 yrs out of them. Cannot purchase repair parts as the manufacturer does not make the parts anymore. Seems we’ve bought our way into a throw away world; even if we didn’t want it.

        Reply
    • AvatarCompaq Deskpro

      What’s the endgame? You will stuff into existence in the Matrix while your body lays in a vat? This situation guarantees that nobody except engineers have any reason to exist, or even take off the VR helmet.

      Reply

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