Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Shawn Jansen
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

After 39 years, T&M Athletics to close

 

February 15, 2018

Shawn Jansen

Sissy and Tom Brabec, after 39 years, are ready to liquidate their sporting goods store, T&M Athletics in Willow River, and move on to other things.

After 39 "wonderful" years in sporting goods retail, Tom Brabec will close the doors of T&M Athletics in Willow River this spring.

It will be like saying goodbye to a longtime friend.

"This store was in my mind when I was in high school," said Brabec in a recent interview at the store. "It was kind of a goal of mine to own a sporting goods store."

Cross country skis and poles are lined up along one wall, used ice skates hang on a rail, a couple rows of bikes fill the downstairs floor, and various balls, accessories and apparel hang from racks and line the walls. Every inch of space is utilized.

Brabec was interested in sports from high school, "I was sports crazy," he admitted, saying he participated in football, basketball, baseball and track.

He graduated from Willow River High School in 1973, then went to college at St. Cloud State and received a management/finance degree. His final project in college was a 30-page paper on starting a sporting goods store, so he had all the background work completed to go to a bank for financing.

The next steps were lining up suppliers and finding a location.

"After I got out of college in the winter of '78, I got a job ... while I was working at this other job, I planned this store for six months," said Brabec.

Why Willow River? "I don't know," he said. "I played a lot of softball in the summer." A lot of people played then, and the nearest sporting goods store was 40 miles away. "I thought there was this gap there. And, I thought, if I'm going to do this, let's do it here.

"Coming back to your hometown where people know you, that helps," Brabec said.

He rented the building at first; it had been built for an antique shop that never happened and was only 1 ½ years old.

"It was 1979 when I opened this up," said Brabec. "April 5th."

"It's changed a lot from when I first started," he said. He used to carry fishing stuff and archery equipment. "You just kind of change with what's going on around the area."

He bought the building after a couple of years, then in 1983, Brabec added on the upper level with a full basement, making it more than twice as big.

"Cross country skiing became very big, then snowshoeing and later on, for the last seven, eight years it's been really heavy on bicycles and bike repair," Brabec said.

"I do trophies, plaques, with the engraving, screen printing, embroidery. I've done a lot of everything," he said, including skate sharpening and selling new and used skates. "Through the years you have to change ... If you fight it, you're in trouble."

Over the years, Brabec has witnessed all kinds of changes.

"The first 15 years, I sold 90 percent waxable skis. Now, it's about 95 percent no wax," he said. Everything's done for convenience now, he said.

Clothing has changed, too. "Years ago, you had two to three different styles." That was all they had, but now, he said, the materials in apparel have gotten better. And there are so many different styles and colors.

"You can't handle all this stuff anymore," he said of carrying inventory.

And, he's noticed an overall decline in participation in sports. Some decline is due to external factors. Take cross country skiing. He said you can't count on Minnesota winters having 2-3 feet of snow on the ground anymore, and Banning State Park no longer grooms trails, so there are fewer people skiing in the area.

But overall, people seem to be less active than they once were. There used to be 20-24 summer softball teams. "Now there are five," he said.

Brabec said, "The greatest thing about owning this business is the amount of people I've been able to meet and gotten to know."

And those relationships were also fostered through giving back to the community.

Brabec said, "I've been on the Commercial Club since 1980." Along with that, he spent 32 years on the fire department, 36 years announcing football games, served as city clerk and mayor, and taught cross country skiing and ski waxing through community education classes.

But it can be tough owning a small business in a rural community.

"The challenges are different from when I first started," Brabec said. Then, people shopped locally from a 30-mile radius. He said he worked at trying to get people interested.

"You work long hours. You're married to your business."

"Now, it's the Internet," Brabec said. The Internet's been the major challenge of all his years in retail.

"I'm a hands-on person. When I go and buy something, I want to see it," said Brabec. But as people get more comfortable shopping online, he knows he would have to take the store a different direction.

"I guess I'm still old school," Brabec said. He enjoys the customers. One stopped in just to jaw about the Super Bowl.

"The bicycle repair has been fabulous. I enjoy working on bikes," he said. He's even been known to do emergency repairs for bikers along the Willard Munger State Trail a block away.

"I guess I've been here this long for a reason - I've worked it," said Brabec.

But the store made a living for the family. Brabec married his high school sweetheart, Sissy Peterson of Denham, in 1978. She had attended the University of Minnesota to be a dental hygienist. They raised two children, Jason and Allison, put them through college and paid for health insurance.

"It's been fun. It has been great," said Brabec. "I won't miss the long hours," he added.

Sissy piped in, "Woo-hoo! It's time to just do something different. We're both OK with that."

The first thing Tom said when we sat down was, "I owe a big thank you to my wife, Sissy, for bringing me lunch every day for 39 years." He said he is grateful for her support behind-the-scenes.

He plans to sell all the inventory and the building so the couple can spend more time at their cabin near Finlayson and also more time with their kids and grandkids.

Of course, this self-professed workaholic will not be content sitting around. He would like to continue doing trophies and bike repair from home when he can. Customers can call him with questions at (218) 390-0971.

Just as he carefully planned the beginning of his business, Brabec said, by the time his sale starts, there will have been five weeks of planning.

"You want to do it right," he said.

T&M Athletics' farewell sale begins February 16 and is scheduled through April 21, with discounts increasing 10 percent every two or three weeks until everything is gone. Items include Fuji bicycles and accessories; cross country skis, boots, poles and bindings; snowshoes and bindings; Rebels jackets, shirts and hats; darts and accessories; baseball and softball gloves, pants, etc.; inflatable balls; letter jackets; hockey equipment and socks; used ice skates; Maxx sunglasses; safety vests, T-shirts and helmets; cash register, fixtures and more.

T&M Athletics is located at 3001 County Road 43 in Willow River. Store hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. The store can be contacted at (218) 372-3141.

 

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