The recent passing of former Mill End Stores owner Robert Folkert led his daughters to reminisce about their father and his life in retail. They tell the Cleaver that Robert “Bob” Folkert’s life was his stores.
If you have ever visited a Mill End Store you can instantly recall the creaky floors and smell of leather goods. It was a go-to place for buying those flannels for Dad each Christmas and if you ventured upstairs fabric for your latest sewing project. I recall I bought my first and only pair of cowboy boots at the Clare Mill End Store!
The flagship of the Mill End stores was in Bay City. It was opened in the late 1930s and closed in 2005. In 2012 the Bay City store was razed. Many artifacts were saved and are visible at the Mill End Lofts, an upscale housing development. The first Mill End Store was a general store in Wheeler, Michigan and began by Clare Folkert, Bob Folkert’s grandmother.
Bob Folkert got a childhood start in retail in his father’s Mill End Store in downtown Bay City by opening and managing his own small candy counter. His father gave him a loan to purchase his opening inventory, teaching him to purchase his opening inventory, merchandising, pricing and simple bookkeeping.
In boyhood his favorite department in the store became hardware which occupied the basement of that big store in Bay City. At that time the Mill End Stores sold only salvage merchandise. Salvage of all kinds, fire, floor, tornado, and a lot of bankruptcy stocks. The items could be almost anything, men and women’s wear, household goods, books, shoes, boots and bras! The tag line was the “World’s Most Unusual Store.”
Folkert learned to buy salvage which would be bought at open auction or by sealed bid. Insurance companies, middlemen or owners of the merchandise sold salvage goods.
Salvage buying required a tremendous breadth of knowledge and also a unique depth of knowledge. A stock was occasionally ‘clean’ but usually was some combination of soaking wet, fire singed, soiled, missing parts and/or packaging. Folkert, his father and other buyers were sharp. They had the knowledge to value goods at manufacturers cost, retail cost, and what their customers would pay for a stock in its particular state. All of this was required to win at auction or make the deal while not paying to much. Sometimes these calculations were done in minutes on scratch paper if the opportunity presented. These men were sharp as tacks.
Salvage stocks were as large as an entire Kmart or as small as a backyard shed of crafting supplies. They were purchased from across the country, most were east of the Mississippi. They were almost always located and purchased where the loss occurred.
When a stock was won packing materials were found, semis, drivers, and extra on-site personnel were hired. The stock was packed, loaded, and hauled. It was filthy hard work and loads of fun. There were always challenges and they were always different.
The most important work began when the stock arrived at Mill End Store. There was always curiosity and excitement waiting for a new stock to arrive and the buyers now put on their manager and merchandising roles. The stock was unloaded, unpacked, and cleaned. They priced every single item.
In the 1930s and 1940s Mill End Stores was the country’s largest buyer of U.S. Army Surplus. Folkert told the story that he came home from school one day to find a towering pyramid of surplus shoes in their front yard! His job was to pair these hundreds of single shoes.
When Folkert grew up he married a beautiful Irish immigrant named Johanna Ryan. They moved to Clare in 1963 to open the Mill End Store on the corner of McEwan and Fourth Street. They had three daughters. When they moved to Clare, they had a small nest egg and scrambled for loans to purchase salvage stocks. The Bay City Mill End was established but in Clare salvage was something unusual.
In the beginning he purchased grocery stocks on occasion. His daughters recall an almost empty store with piles of canned goods running right down the middle stacked on the floor. He would bring home the food that wouldn’t sell. The girls would shake the cans hoping for corn and not more lima beans! As he started to make money, other stocks were purchased.
One of the favorite stocks purchased was fur covered snowmobile boots and helmets. He crafted hanging shelves that filled every bit of window space and displayed the unusual furry boots and helmets. In the 60s and 70s Clare received more snow that we do now. People drove their snow machines up and down city streets and the sidewalk around the store filled with snow machines with folks arriving to look at the fun merchandise.
Some of the salvage buys didn’t go over well. One such buy was a garden nursery. The Mill End Store was filled with bushes, flowers, and young trees. While magical to children, not all agreed. During the sale Folkert looked over the mezzanine to see the Department of Agriculture marching in. He was informed he didn’t have the license to sell these goods. He was told to stop the sale immediately and he did. So, with every purchase of other merchandise a happy customer received a lovely little bush or flowers or maybe even a little tree.
The most fun salvage buy was a stock full of motorcycles. Folkert picked out an orange Honda XL175 for himself and his daughter Dee upgraded from her minibike to purchase her first motorcycle, a green Kawasaki KEIOO. Father and daughter started daily explorations and found an off-road path which led to the unfinished northbound U.S. 27. They had the whole highway to themselves for weeks until one day they found it barricaded.
As the business grew, he purchased the Gladwin, West Branch, and Bay City Mill End Stores. He opened Tawas and sold it to his sister Geraldine.
Eventually there were changes in bankruptcy laws and within the insurance industry which caused salvage stocked to become few and far between. A new direction was chosen for Mill End Stores selling manufacturer direct first quality goods. Folkert’s retail intelligence and work ethic then turned into a dedication to procure for his customers products that were the best value for their money. He took real pride in this.
In the late 90s U.S. retail manufacturing started to move quickly overseas, which Folkert really disliked. He sold a lot of yard dyed woven, heavyweight flannel shirts. Its supplier was rumored to be considering overseas production. When he placed his order, it was written to ship only U.S. or Canadian made shirts. Unpacked freight was opened on the sales floor. The boxes of flannels were opened and clearing the receiving process when he looked over his office railing, saw the shirts from an above distance of at last 20 feet hollered, “What are those?” No one answered. Clearly, they were flannel shirts. He quickly came down to the floor to look more closely. Sure enough, they were not U.S. made. They were packed up and sent back and American made goods were received in return.
Bob retired the early 2000s. He was a serious dancer, often traveling out of state to square or contra dance. He also stayed active and healthy by working at the Mt. Pleasant health park almost daily. Bob was a regular for coffee at Big Boy Restaurant and Cops and Doughnuts.
The Folkert family story and their long years in retail is a tradition not soon forgotten from Bay City to Clare and the many other downtowns that held a Mill End Store. Sorting through the boxes of memorabilia shared with the Cleaver, the theme is constant; Folkert’s retail expertise and business ability served his customers and his communities well and provided for his family.
Robert Folkert’s obituary can be found on page 8.