Duluth landmark fades into history
May 23, 2016
by Ivan Raconteur

I have read countless news stories over the years, but every so often I see one that stands out and makes me pause for awhile.

One such story was a piece in the Duluth News Tribune about the closing of Bagley & Co., Duluth’s oldest jewelry store.

It is a 131-year-old family business that has occupied the same downtown storefront at 315 West Superior Street since 1885.

The owner has decided, for a variety of reasons, to sell the business and retire. If it is not sold, the business will be closed, as early as June.

The closing has special significance to me, because my father worked in the store until he died.

For 23 years, he could be found behind the counter dispensing friendly advice and quality merchandise.

From the time I was a small child, I visited him there whenever I was downtown.

I remember the elegance and style of the place. The atmosphere was one of people speaking in hushed tones, as in a cathedral.

The view consisted of glittering crystal, jewels, gold, and silver as far as the eye could see.

Curved counters of polished wood and sparkling glass dominated the space and provided a fitting backdrop for the products.

The walls were lined with shelves displaying fine china and sterling silver serving pieces.

Unlike the carbon-copy chain stores that now dominate the retail scene, Bagley’s was an old-school establishment that had a style of its own.

There were a lot of old businesses like that in Duluth when I was young.

Bagley’s was a destination location. People from far and wide trusted the advice of the staff and the reputation of the business when they were making important purchases.

Sometimes, I would take a bus downtown to do some shopping, and stop at Bagley’s about closing time so I could ride home with my dad.

Frequently, he would have some deliveries to make for the store on his way home.

The parcels neatly wrapped in heavy silver paper contained items destined to become heirlooms for the recipients.

While I was patiently waiting in the store, I often watched my old man and the other employees work, and the process was more like a dignified consultation about an investment than a high-pressure sales pitch that one might find in other stores.

The staff at Bagley’s was interested in building long-term relationships, not quick sales.

The current owner, who took over from his father in 1979, and owned the place when my father worked there more than 30 years ago, listed the lack of a successor and an upcoming major street project as reasons for getting out of the business now.

He also attributed it to the changing tastes of consumers.

People are not entertaining the way they once did, and many people are opting for informal, less expensive, trendy items instead of timeless classics designed to last a lifetime.

Habits are changing, as well.

There is no need to give people fine china as a wedding gift when the recipients eat dinner off paper plates in front of the TV instead of around a table as a family group.

Perhaps this is a reflection of our society.

We want everything now, and we buy disposable goods that we fully intend to throw away soon to be replaced with new items.

We have been conditioned to buy things that become outdated the minute we walk out of the store.

Sacrificing quality for price has become a way of life, and the landfills are monuments to this trend.

One wonders what archaeologists of the future will make of the things they find when digging through our cast-off possessions.

The closing of Bagley’s has significance for me because many of my childhood memories are woven into the place.

On another level, the closing represents the end of an era.

It represents quality being replaced with convenience.

It signals the decline of career sales people who knew their merchandise and their customers. These sales consultants are being replaced by people who have don’t have a clue who their customers are, and who know less about the products they are trying to sell than the customers do.

We can’t go back in time, but the future frequently fails to inspire confidence.

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