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Lessons from a business closing

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Perhaps most of the people who crowded into the cozy Schatzlein Saddle Shop last week were there to take advantage of the storewide clearance sale. But some of them surely came to the store not so much to buy something as to say something: goodbye.

A Minneapolis business that has lasted 115 years, making one family’s name synonymous with the smell of new leather and the aesthetic appeal of Western boots and cowboy hats, cannot ride off into the sunset without attention being paid.

After occupying the time and attention of three generations of Schatzleins, the business has announced it will close by the end of September to allow some of the older family members to retire. Other factors read like a litany of modern business challenges: competition from online retailers, the difficulty of hiring staff during a period of historically low unemployment, and lingering problems with the supply of goods, which have yet to fully recover from disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet those are common difficulties any business might face. That a harness shop opened by a German immigrant, Emil Schatzlein, in 1907 could have remained in operation for so long seems extraordinary — and its demise, if anything, overdue.

Such longevity is part of what made Schatzlein a comforting institution, a sign that the Minneapolis of today still had essential things in common with the Minneapolis of years gone by. It shared that characteristic with another landmark Lake Street business, Ingebretsen’s Nordic Marketplace.

Like Schatzlein, Ingebretsen’s is steeped in tradition. Lines of shoppers snake out the door and down the block each year during the holiday season. Also like Schatzlein, it is a remarkable success story, born from a seed planted long ago by an immigrant — in this case, Charles Ingebretsen in 1921.

Current statistics suggest that only half of all small businesses survive five years and that a third hang on for as long as 10. It’s harder to find data about how many businesses last for a hundred years, but one guess is that it might be one-half of 1%. That these two small businesses could remain afloat for more than a century says something remarkable about the entrepreneurial spirit, and the economic vitality, of immigrant communities.

Between Schatzlein and Ingebretsen’s along Lake Street is the Midtown Global Market, where immigrants are among the small-business owners working to bring new life to the ground floor of the old Sears building. They and other immigrants and refugees in the metropolitan area operate businesses that generated $37 million in 2019.

Maybe none of them will still be in operation in 2122 — but nobody would have expected such a long run from Charles Ingebretsen or Emil Schatzlein, either.

When an editorial writer visited Schatzlein last week, a crowd of saddened customers was trying on boots and hats in the shadow of the store’s antique horse buggy. Down the road at Ingebretsen’s, business was less brisk, perhaps because there is no hint that the store might close anytime soon. Police officers were there responding to a call about a purse-snatching on the sidewalk outside, a reminder of the urgent need to get Minneapolis’ crime problem under control.

Schatzlein’s departure is an occasion for sadness, but also for congratulations. This is how American success stories are supposed to work. It is also a challenge to other businesses, whether run by immigrants or not, to the need to evolve as times change.

And it reminds the rest of us that immigrant businesses make unique contributions to a city’s vitality. They deserve support.

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