The old time door handle is the first clue that you are stepping back in time as you enter the Willow River Mercantile. The bell jingling as you enter the store is the second. The squeaky, worn, hardwood floors are the third.
That’s just the beginning of the adventure.
Customers have trod those floors since 1901. The “Merc”, as it is commonly known, has provided for every need for 112 years: groceries, hardware, household needs, and dry goods.
“I used to come here as a child with my parents,” a woman said as she visited the store during this reporter’s recent interview with the current owner, Bruce Bohaty. That phrase is repeated over and over, many times a day as former and local residents stop in just to see that things have not changed.
But changes are taking place. Bohaty is preparing for a huge tag sale to be held on Labor Day weekend, August 31 and September 1. The hours of the sale are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, August 31, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, September 1.
Steven Wesely of Crescent Auctioneering has been setting up for the sale. It will not be an auction. For the tag sale numbers will be issued an hour before the sale to limit the number of people in the store at one time. The numbers will be issued on a first-come, first -served basis. The crowds are expected to be huge for this very special sale.
Bohaty, 61, listed his reasons for changing the role of the Merc.
“The business was always steady,” he said. “I could have kept going. It got to be just too many hours.
“We are not in the right location. We are a block off of Highway 61. The interstate is where the action is.
“The flood had nothing to do with our closing. The basements filled up in both the store and in the appliance store next door. A lot of good stuff was ruined. But that only resulted in getting those basements cleaned out.”
Bohaty was quick to point out that he has no plans to retire.
“My dad never retired,” he said. "I probably won’t either. I have no plan at this point but this is part of the progression.”
Ed Bohaty, Bruce’s father purchased the store from Ed Halva in 1955. Halva had owned the store since 1901 along with several partners over the years.
The elder Bohaty came to work for Halva in 1946 after he got out of military service. However, the Bohaty tradition in Willow River goes back even further. Bruce’s grandfather had been a barber next door.
Ed Bohaty had come to work at the store intending to work for a short time with the idea of going to the city. His plans changed when Ed Halva died suddenly in 1951.
“Dad bought the store then," said Bruce. "He officially owned it outright in 1955. It had been paid for.”
Bruce had an older sister, Karen, and a younger sister, Kay. Both left home and moved away. Bruce’s mother Gloria still lives in the family home in Willow River.
Ed Bohaty’s brother, Jim came to work at the store after he was discharged after fighting in the Korean War. He worked alongside his brother until 1970 when he bought a store in Rush City.
Meanwhile, Bruce grew up and went on to attend college at UMD.
“I used to work here on evenings and weekends,” said Bruce. “I completed college in 1974. Sandi (Cunningham) and I were married in 1975. I had planned to just work here for a little while. Like my dad, I never left.”
Bruce described the philosophy of the Willow River Mercantile.
“If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,” he said. “That’s how it used to be.
People used to come into the store and hand over the list. The storekeeper went and got it for them. My dad was born to be a storekeeper.
"As time passed, things changed. Now there are too many choices for each product. "
Ed Bohaty’s own philosophy was to never throw anything away, someone might need it someday explained Bruce. Now Bruce and Steve are cleaning out five warehouses.
“He didn’t throw anything away,” said Wesely. “This is not unsold inventory. It’s new old stock. It’s Ed’s treasure chest.”
“As I was going through things and saw how much there was,"said Bruce, "I hired Steven. I needed someone who would know how to price things. Many are considered antiques.”
Those treasures reflect earlier times: an old slat-woven bassinet, wooden cheese boxes, radios from days gone by, enamelware and lamps to name a few of the items.
One of Wesely’s favorite items is a large two-sided Allis-Chalmers sign that had been lighted with neon at one time.
“That’s ultra, ultra rare,” Wesley said. “A store like this has been gone for 30 years. Ninety percent of the items for sale fall into the category of antiques and collectibles.”
For more information about the sale, watch for flyers with 84 photographs, and for an ad in the Evergreen.