Cambridge brings variety store back to life

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August 23, 2011 - 7:00pm

For the town of Cambridge, the bad news came right around Thanksgiving last year.

Duckwall-ALCO Stores announced it was closing its 44 Duckwalls stores nationwide, including the one in the south central Nebraska town. In 1998, the town had developed and built the building for a Duckwalls. Folks in Cambridge said the store did well; news of the closing came as a surprise to Randy Heitmann, a Cambridge accountant and member of the town's economic development board.

Photos by Mike Tobias, NET News

SLIDESHOW: Cambridge General Store

"There was no warning at all," Heitmann said. "Our manager never even had any warning about it. We found out about it and basically went back to work."

Heitmann said he and fellow board member Tammy Sexton immediately started calling other retail store chains to see if anyone was interested in taking over the Duckwalls location.

Randy Heitmann, Cambridge Economic Development Board member

"Our phone calls met stone walls," Heitmann said. "'The community's not big enough. The store's not big enough. We've got one in the area.' And Tammy one day said, 'Why don't we just open one of our own?'

"And I looked at her and I said, 'Are you crazy?' And she goes, 'Yes, I am.'"

Soon, it was more than just a crazy idea. They talked to communities that had done something similar, brought in the expertise of a businessman who used to run the local hardware store and came up with a plan. Start an LLC - Limited Liability Company - and sell shares to the public, with a $500 minimum investment. A couple of days before Christmas, they called a make-or-break public meeting to see if there was enough interest: 225 people showed up.

"So we were excited," Heitmann said, "because we knew we were going in the right direction, or possibly could be going in the right direction."

Then it was full speed ahead. In the next few months, more than 120 people would invest a total of $263,000 in the company, most investing just $500 or $1,000 each. Scott Orcutt, who had managed the Cambridge Duckwalls store from its opening, decided to stay and run the new store.

Scott Orcutt, Cambridge General Store manager

"We had a lot of volunteers in here to help us clean up the building and clean the shelves," Orcutt said.

The Cambridge General Store opened May 18, stocked with merchandise from eight different vendors, including hardware, food, toys, small appliances and health care and cleaning supplies. Orcutt said being independent from a chain has helped the store serve its local customers.

"Now, I'm doing all the buying as well as picking all the products and everything that comes into the store, from all the different vendors that we can get," Orcutt said. "We also do a lot of special orders for people, that anything they want that I can get, we've done a lot of that. And that's really helped enhance our business."

Heitmann said so far, the Cambridge General Store is doing well. He said sales are about 15 to 30 percent higher than the old Duckwalls, which could lead to a dividend for shareholders. He said there are several reasons he believes the new store can sustain this success.

"One is a local ownership," Heitmann said. "That was one of the things we were banking on, that people put money into it, they're going to spend money here. And that's been proven. Fuel prices have helped us. The third thing is the quality of the merchandise we have in the store. Our merchandise that we have is better quality than Duckwalls was."

For Jolene Brown of Cambridge, having a store like this in town is important because it means she doesn't have to drive 25 miles west to McCook for things like food storage bags.

"It is amazing what they pulled off," Brown said. "The products they brought in, the plumbing supplies. The paint, we didn't have here in town and we've got it now. That is pretty awesome."

Heitmann said the store is important to Cambridge for reasons apart from mere convenience. Because the town has a 1.5-cent sales tax, local spending puts money into the city coffers. And it provides a few jobs in a rural area where employment can be hard to come by. But the store also does something for the community that can't be as easily measured.

"You lose something like a variety store, some type of a store in a community of 1,100 people, and the first thing people say is, 'Oh my god, what's going next? How is this going to have a spiral effect as to what else is going to happen to our community?'" Heitmann said. "So first of all, it was the psyche of the community to say, 'We can do this. And we're going to do this, and we're going to survive.'"



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