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Saying goodbye: Historic Norby's Department Store closing leaves family, community heartbroken

Owners of Norby's Department Store (from left) Jean Anderson, Michael Norby and Mary Beth Gilsdorf, are closing down their 112-year-old family business, with a lot of heartache and a lot of memories. (Paula Quam / Tribune)1 / 2
This is one of the earliest photos taken of the "new store" after it opened on Saturday March 17, 1906. (Becker County Historical Society)2 / 2

Nobody alive today in Detroit Lakes can remember a time when Norby's Department Store wasn't right there on Washington Avenue, an old, dependable anchor to the ever-changing downtown.

Its large display windows, like a flip book illustration of its long story, have changed from season to season, year to year, decade to decade over a century. The fall and winter fashions featuring long dresses and long, tailored suit jackets that were all the rage in 1909 when Norby's opened gave way to the floral, fitted dresses with the bottom flares that ladies of the 30's loved, to the high-waisted polka dotted fashions of the 50's, to the more flamboyant polyester of the 70's....and on to today, where the story ends, in May of 2018.

The only thing in those windows now is a display of white paper and the sad words that after 112 years, the family-owned and operated business is closing its doors forever.

"It's like a death in the family," said Jean Anderson, who serves as a vice president to the company and is one-third of the sibling group that grew up with the store. For Anderson, her sister and co-vice president Mary Beth Gilsdorf, and her brother and president of Norby's, Michael Norby, the store is more than just a store. It's in their bones. It's part of who they are.

"It's sad, this has been our life, our whole lives," said Norby, who says the decision was not an easy one or a quick one. In fact, it's been a slow churning realization that's been in the back of their minds for roughly five years, which is around the time when the retail business started to really change.

Every year the Norby descendants would analyze their business, every year they'd make changes to try to turn things around, every year it looked more and more bleak.

"My husband, Hans, said it best," said Gilsdorf. "We've been in the trenches for a while, and now it's filling in with mud. You don't stay in the trenches — you've gotta get out."

And these three wanted to say goodbye to their great-grandfather's creation their way, on their terms.

"We're not going to have a banker come and say 'Guess what, now is the time'....that's not what we want," said Norby. "We want to do it our way and stay true to our core values."

The store closed right after its annual Memorial Day sale and will open back up on Thursday, June 7 for a sale that will end when the last item is purchased and out the door. Until then, the three siblings, their families and the employees that have been there so long they're like family, are busy putting every single item still in stock out on display for the last time. It's a decision that has saddened an entire community, as hundreds of messages have been flooding into the family with an overwhelming, collective message of "I can't believe it, this is so sad!"

Can't beat 'em, can't join 'em

It isn't one thing that led up to this day; it's many things. It's the way some people would come in and try on clothes just to get their proper size and then turn around and buy them online, where they were a little cheaper. It's the way national, brand name vendors began actually competing with their own distributors by doing their own online sales and prohibiting "third party vendors," like Norby's, from doing so.

It's the way Amazon has found a way to capture consumers at every turn, on every level in a way that no little family-owned business could ever try to compete with. It's all this and more, but as heartbroken as Norby, Anderson and Gilsdorf are, they refuse to be bitter.

"We don't want to go out throwing stones in that oh, it's the customers, oh it's the vendors — that's not right," said Norby, "You know what? It's been a great run, it really has."

The 'run'

The Norbys' run actually began before the turn of the century, when L.J. (Lewis) Norby paired up with A.M. Blanding, who had already started a department store with goods for the settling pioneers. When Blanding died in 1899, Norby broke off from Blanding's and its new president, E.G. Holmes (a rich, powerful relative of the Blandings), to start his own department store across the street along with his brother, G.L. (Gus) Norby, in 1906. Together, they continued to build on their family store, creating a successful business known for its quality products and good customer service. For many years, that was enough, as it was passed along from generation to generation, from L.J. Norby to his son, J.E. (James) Norby and then to L.J. Norby (or Jim, as he was known), father to the three siblings that now own it. Jim had an emotional connection to the business. He grew up in it, and he raised Jean, Michael and Mary Beth in it as well.

"I remember crawling behind the dressing rooms where they had this big bridal dressing room with all these dresses," said Anderson, smiling. Memories are everywhere for the three of them, including coffee time with their mother, Mary Lou, who would, like clockwork, always make her way to the store at 3 p.m. with the kids for coffee with their father and whatever employees happened to be on break at that time.

Some of those employees continued working for the family even after their father's passing in 1992, and their mother's in 1996. They were good times, a simpler time when the three siblings couldn't imagine a day when Norby's wouldn't be there.

"I remember when I started working in the men's department, and in the first week I had an elderly gentleman say 'I want you to show me your BVD's,'" said Norby, who was 16 years old and clueless of what that was. "...and he raised his voice and said 'BVD's, man! Don't you know what BVD's are?' And one of the older, more experienced employees comes over and says, 'He needs underwear.' That was a brand of underwear, I had no idea!"

Meanwhile, up in the women's department, both Jean and Mary Beth remember their time as teens when they were among the six to eight employees it took just to tend to the women customers and the long lines at the dressing rooms. Business was good; times were much different. At one point in the 70's and 80's, Norby's even had four different specialty stores, branching off into St. Cloud and Fergus Falls, but those eventually closed in the 1990's.

Back to their roots

Although all three siblings took time away from the store to explore their own strengths and careers, they all came back to run the store. Anderson, an artist and experienced retail manager; Norby, with his education and experience in finance; and Gilsdorf, an engineer with experience in technology, all split their duties and, as Anderson puts it, "stayed out of each other's kitchens."

They all say that aside from the expected "tiff" now and then, they got along great together as business owners.

"My favorite part was getting to be the boss of them (his sisters)," laughed Norby, as Anderson playfully began bowing to him while Gilsdorf pointed out her surprise when her dad expressed his old-school desire to have Michael run the business one day, simply because he was a boy and had the last name.

"I was like...him? He can hardly dress himself!" she laughed, as Norby laughed along. "That's true," he added.

Laughter and their families appear to be the lifelines pulling them through this admittedly emotional time. Not a one of them has any idea what they'll do for a living once the doors close for the last time. They say there's simply too much to do and too much to deal with for them to put much thought into it. Once everything is gone, the building will be put up for sale, and the Norby family is hoping somebody buys it who will turn it into retail again.

"This town needs retail," said Norby, " and retail needs other retail." But with that, a sentiment from Gilsdorf serves as a heartfelt warning to shoppers who want to keep that retail in town.

"Just remember that every time you shop online, you're not shopping here, and that makes a difference," she said, sadness and frustration evident in her and her siblings' faces as they sat together in the old building they all know like the backs of their hands, "even in the dark," they said.

But they don't believe their father would have been too badly disappointed; not in them, anyway. In fact, they all believe that despite their father's love for the store, he'd have hated all the changes in consumer and vendor practices even more than they did. "I think maybe he'd be thinking, 'Wow you guys, great job, you stuck it out longer than I would have," said Norby, who says they're all trying to think positively going forward.

"And you know what?" he said. "Something good is going to happen; where one door closes, another one opens."

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