A piece of Americana fades away

Springrove Variety in Lowell closes down

By Emma Palova

Lowell, MI- He calls himself the shopkeeper standing behind the candy counter with an old-fashioned scale on original maple wood floors. Mike Sprenger, owner of Springrove Variety at the corner of Main Street and Riverside, is more than a business owner. He was like a sentinel on the Flat River keeping watch over the old times amidst the hustle and bustle of the growing town. Moreover, he created a family atmosphere inside the store modeled after his former employer, D&C. The store will close by the end of September, as Sprenger retires.

With one of a few nickel & dime stores remaining in Michigan, and mushrooming box stores, the competition was relentless. But so was the community support over the years.

“We’ve outlived our niche gradually over the 15 years,” he said. “The community support kept it going, that’s what makes it hard to close it.”

Hannah Ritsema behind the candy counter at the Springrove Variety in Lowell.

Sprenger opened Springrove Variety in its current location in January of 1995 after working for D&C stores. He started as a stock boy sweeping and washing floors. He worked himself up to district manager overseeing nine stores. When D&C closed in 1993, he started looking for a job. At first, he wanted to work for a wholesaler, but on second thought, he’d rather buy goods from one.

Based on a tip from a wholesaler, Sprenger found out about the store in Lowell. He moved from Walled Lake on the east side of the state to the Lowell area.

“I loved it,” he said.

Sprenger combined part of his last name and his partner’s Bob Grove to create the name, Springrove. Grove never entered the partnership.

He admits that the first years were challenging in finding connections with the wholesalers, building up the stock and finding out what the town wants. His consistent answer to customer requests was:

“I will get it,” he always said.

Then came the box stores and departments like clothes and shoes at Springrove Variety had to go. Instead the focus was on crafts and toys.

“We had to readjust our niche,” he said. “We could react faster than big stores to fad items like Beanie Babies, spinners and Cabbage Patch.”

To buy items at a competitive price from the wholesalers, Sprenger had to buy direct.

“It’s very hard to do,” he said. “What saved us, we had six stores, we brought in the goods and split it up.”

He grew the number of stores to six experiencing the highest peak in sales and employees in 2005 with 60 employees. He would split the inventory between the six stores located in Greenville, Trenton, Allegan, Wyoming, Marysville and Owosso.

As the wholesalers started going away, so did the dime stores. There used to be a dime store in every small town. Out of the seven wholesalers in the USA, there remains one variety distributor.

And then came COVID-19 in March of 2020 and everything deemed not necessary was shut down. It was precisely the crafts, the yarns and the puzzles that saved the store from going prematurely out.

“We were deemed essential,” Sprenger said. “People went nuts locked in their homes. We were here to supply the needs for COVID. It was a blessing for them and for us. We had wanted they wanted.”

However, Sprenger made the decision to retire long before COVID-19.

Like many dime store owners, Sprenger, 67, started feeling the age. He was working six days a week, 12 hours a day.

“It was time for me to slow down,” he said. “We did what we had to do.”

The loyal customers will miss the store as much as they will miss the shopkeeper. Most of them used to come into the store as kids and buy candy.

Sprenger could tell many stories from the store, but he related a heart-warming one. Back in his office, he pulled out of a box, a framed one- dollar bill with a yellow sticky note dated 2010 that said:

“I have lived in Lowell for 70 years. When I was 7 or 8, I took 1 or 2 penny balloons. It keeps bothering me. Please accept payment. Thank you.”

Call it a testimony or a souvenir to his five decades long career in the variety business. Also, his employees loved to work there; from the longest employee Linda Hamp to Hannah Ritsema.

“In a small town, Linda would know their names,” he said. “Everybody knew everybody.”

Jean Jeltema of Lowell recalls going to the store to buy fried peanuts and “Evening in Paris” perfume.

“They had stuff in flask squares and wooden floors,” she said. “Mike would always make an effort to get it for you.”

Dawn Ruegsegger of Saranac bought all her yarns at Springrove for kids and grandkids’ blankets.

“When my kids were young, I did cross-stitch blankets and got string and squares from there and did pillow cases,” she said. “So sorry it will be gone.”

But for most customers, the missing part will be the shopkeeper himself.

“I will miss talking to Mike and his family the most,” Ruegsegger said.

Three weeks ago, Jeltema bought elastic at the store for a mask at 20 percent off.

“I will miss him,” she said. “He was always right there, ready to help you. Mike knew his customers.”

Sprenger will serve on the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce Board and work for 20 hours overseeing the remaining stores in Marysville and Owosso for three more years.

He regrets that the grandchildren won’t know the atmosphere of the dime stores.

“That’s what we’re losing when the barber shops, the soda fountains and the dime stores go out,” he said.

Copyright (c) 2020. Emma Blogs, LLC. All rights reserved.


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