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Mar-Jons to close Westgate Mall store

BAXTER - Almost 29 years to the day since a family business opened its doors inside the Westgate Mall, the independent sportswear business is planning to close.

Jon Belcher (left) said one of the benefits of the family business was being able to spend time everyday with his father Clem. Clem Belcher spent 29 years working for Sears and another 29 years with Mar-Jons, which he named for his sons Mark and Jon. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch
Jon Belcher (left) said one of the benefits of the family business was being able to spend time everyday with his father Clem. Clem Belcher spent 29 years working for Sears and another 29 years with Mar-Jons, which he named for his sons Mark and Jon. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER - Almost 29 years to the day since a family business opened its doors inside the Westgate Mall, the independent sportswear business is planning to close.

Mar-Jons Sportswear opened in the mall the week before Christmas in 1985.

Clem Belcher spent 29 years with Sears before opening his store and naming it for his two sons - Mark and Jon. The family's roots were in the farm communities of Jackson and Windom in southwestern Minnesota before they made the move to lake country.

The business grew in the mall, which itself was just a couple of months old and seeking tenants. For Jon Belcher the mall community has been like a second home.

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"We're happy for the times when we had a lot of traffic. Time changes things we know that," Clem Belcher said.

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He was fresh from a sales and marketing education at the vocational technical college in Willmar when the inventory was still taking up room in the family home before the store opened shortly before Christmas in 1985. The idea of closing and not being able to pass the family business to his own young son now in elementary school is difficult, as is the idea of not spending time each day with his father, Jon Belcher said. He's still getting used to the reality.

The decision has been months in the making. If they faced a single hurdle, Jon Belcher said they'd have something to work with but so far it has felt like climbing halfway up a mountainside only to be hit by a new avalanche.

"It's not one reason," Jon Belcher said. "It's 20 of them."

As people do more and more shopping via the Internet, the independent stores already working to compete with big box chain buying power find themselves with a second battle front.

"The (Highway 371) bypass really affected us," Clem Belcher said.

At one time, the mall served as a major community center of activity, Jon Belcher said. A major change occurred when anchor tenant Kmart moved out. Without as much foot traffic, it's hard for shoppers to know if there is a deal they may be interested in or if an item will catch their eye.

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Mar-Jons enjoyed success at the mall, which Jon Belcher credits his father's foresight in negotiating a 10-year no compete clause when they first opened. When the Twins had World Series runs, the T-shirts and sweatshirts were big sellers. Success with the state's professional teams drives sales, but there has been a regular drought on that front as well.

There have also been hurdles from suppliers. When there was a buzz for Brett Favre after his signing with the Vikings, Mar-Jons was quick to see what consumers would want and ordered 200 jerseys. Their stores smaller order compared with others seemed to fall to the back of the line. Their jerseys arrived three weeks later. By that time, sports fans were already wearing No. 4.

Nike has been the biggest brand for the store. At one time, athletic shoes filled the walls along the store's entrance. Last spring, Mar-Jons was informed Nike would limit small independent retailers to shoes retailing less than $75, effectively cutting them out of one of their strong points with the running shoe and sports shoe markets. For their No. 1 account, Jon Belcher said that is tough to overcome. At one time 15 sales reps from all the companies arrived at their door to show them the latest lines. Now, the number has dwindled to about four. The rest go with online ordering. As for the Internet sales, Jon Belcher said they are feeling at a disadvantage to online fulfillment centers that don't pay sales tax.

While independent retailers used to have a sizable piece of the pie, times are changing as consumers change their shopping habits.

"We're down to flakes of the crust," Jon Belcher said.

Even as they think about closing the doors, neither man was bitter about the pending loss just saddened at the thought of missing the connections with people and happy for the time they had. They were counting all the young people they employed over the years who were just starting out working toward their own dreams. Now those once high school teenage workers come in with children and even grandchildren of their own.

"It's been fun to watch people grow up," Jon Belcher said. "It goes by so fast."

Clem Belcher said the Internet is taking sales from independent dealers but that is the changing world of business.

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When Clem Belcher arrived in the lakes area in 1977, nearly every street corner had a gas station and neighborhood mom-and-pop groceries were the norm.

"We're happy for the times when we had a lot of traffic. Time changes things we know that," Clem Belcher said. "We realize that."

The idea of continuing on in a smaller store site or keeping a few accounts with an Internet presence has some appeal. Jon Belcher said it's been a difficult decision and the reality hasn't quite set in yet.

Mar-Jons found success as the sportswear business and later expanded to operate MJ's sports shop with sporting gear in the Westport Mall. Recently, they closed MJ's and incorporated the sports gear into Mar-Jons. Mark Belcher hasn't been active with the store in recent years. Along with their staff, the Belchers pointed to the contributions of employees Dave Rozinka and Brian Smith.

"When I was a kid growing up it was like this is going to be fun I get to maybe someday hand this off to my son," Jon Belcher said. "There is nobody to blame it's just the way the world is going. I'm not bitter at all. I appreciate of the years we've been here. I feel fortunate.

"Geez. I get to work with my dad. There's not a lot of people who get to spend time with their dad and that to me is very important. And now what's the saddest thing is I'm not going to be everyday with him anymore if we close. That saddens me."

While it seems the right time to give his father a chance to enjoy retirement, it comes with a number of unknowns - not the least of which for Jon Belcher is where he may find a job and what he'll do in this next life chapter.

Clem Belcher, who taught school for a couple of years including shorthand during his long business career, hopes to volunteer at an elementary school perhaps helping youngsters as they learn to read. With a 7-year-old grandson, he already has fresh experience to call upon. He'll also continue his support of area sports. In 20 years, Clem Belcher has missed one or two football games whether home or away. Mar-Jons plans to ensure one of the most enjoyable parts of the business - letter jackets for high school students - is passed on.

The Belchers expect to close Mar-Jons by the end of January.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz .

Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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