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Norby's: A proud tradition

It was a little over 100 years ago, on March 17, 1906, that Norby's Department Store first opened its doors in downtown Detroit Lakes.

Though the St. Patrick's Day opening might not make apparent sense, given the fact that brothers L.J. and G.J. Norby were not of Celtic descent, it undoubtedly put the "luck of the Irish" on their side. The family has continued to operate a successful retail department store in the same location for more than a century now.

Its current president, L.J.'s great-grandson Michael Norby, said that while the store has seen quite a few expansions, remodelings and shifts in marketing focus through the years, its basic formula for success lies in the fact that it remains locally owned and operated.

Norby's two sisters, Jean Anderson and Mary Beth Gilsdorf, are both vice presidents in the company, along with Ron Zeman, who has been with Norby's since Feb. 7, 1970.

"Bigger is not always better," Norby said. "With the big chain stores, it's a numbers game... they almost don't care what the manufacturers put in the stores. All they want to know is what the return will be for the dollars they put out."

Merchandise is bought in bulk, through a regional hub, then distributed to stores in 8-9 different states or more. As such, not all of it will sell well throughout the entire chain, because customers in different parts of the region have different wants and priorities.

But at Norby's, "We live and die by the goods," its president said. "If they don't sell well, there's no recourse for us (because there's no other chain stores to redistribute it)."

Because of that, Norby and the rest of the executive team actually spend time working directly with vendors, going to markets to examine goods personally as much as possible.

"That's the way we (Norby and his siblings) were brought up in the business," he said. "We still think it's important to go to regional and international market shows."

As for Zeman, Norby added, "he's a throwback to prior generations of buyers... our vendors say he's one of the top market retail shoppers they deal with. When Ron makes a buy, he knows what he wants."

Unfortunately, Norby continued, this type of hands-on purchasing is becoming more and more rare.

"It's getting so impersonal, because of more and more vendors wanting to cut costs," he said. "They're doing away with their (traveling) reps.

"There used to be on-the-road salesmen who would come to visit us (at the store) at least twice a year. Now, a lot of it's done over the phone and the Internet. It's hard to get a feel for the merchandise that way."

Though Norby's still obtains as much of its merchandise through direct markets as possible, that doesn't mean the store hasn't moved into the 21st century. Gilsdorf, who came to work for the family business in 1999, operates its increasingly successful online sales department.

"While I don't see Norby's going away, it (online sales) is a way to open up our store to the World Wide Web," Norby said. "Kids under 40 have no fear of doing their shopping online... there has to be some sort of presence on the Web. This is the wave of the future."

But that doesn't keep Norby and the rest of the staff from continuing to look for ways to improve the store itself.

"We've tried to continually update it and keep it as fresh as a small family department store can be," he continued. "What we try to do, even now, is to redo things every other year or so... when our summer residents come in, we want them to keep coming back every year, so we try to make it so they come in and see something fresh."

But not every venture Norby's has attempted has been as successful as its landmark store on Washington Avenue.

Back in the early 1970s, Norby's began opening a small chain of specialty stores.

"The first one opened in downtown St. Cloud, in 1972," Norby said. "Then we opened a store at Crossroads Mall (also in St. Cloud) in 1975."

Anderson opened another store in Fergus Falls' Westridge Mall in 1983, and the final one opened in Willmar's mall in 1984.

"We phased them out between 1990-93," Norby said. "That was a little hard on my father (L.J.)... those stores were his babies."

Initially, they tried to salvage the Fergus Falls business by relocating and shifting its focus to a men's clothing store.

"We had it for about three years," Norby said. "But it just wasn't profitable enough.

Michael Norby took over the presidency from his father permanently in 1990, about four years after he moved back to Detroit Lakes from Phoenix, Ariz.

This was about 35 years after L.J. had taken over the business from his own father, in 1955. (Michael's uncle, Dick Campion, was also an integral part of the business until the late 1980s.) Michael's father died in 1992.

Despite Norby's unsuccessful attempt to diversify into specialty stores in the 1980s, the store has been, in the main, a local success story -- and an integral part of Detroit Lakes history. Michael Norby believes this won't change anytime soon.

"I feel there will always be a niche for stores like ours -- independent stores that have specific customers in mind," he said.

The store held its first centennial celebration last Friday, March 17, on its official 100th birthday, but Norby said other events are being planned as well. For those who would like to get a glimpse of its 100-year history, Norby's has displayed some photographs and memorabilia in its main office on the second floor.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454