The Magnolia Shoppe

Dec. 13, 2000

The Magnolia Shoppe has been a fixture on Grand Avenue since 1949. "Everyone has passed the Magnolia Shoppe at one time or another," former employee Deb Gergen said. "Prior to the freeway coming in, this was the main drag from the Twin Cities. And it was never a quick in-and-out kind of place either. So much of our society has become like that. And while it might be convenient, it really is too bad. Why are we all in such a rush?" (Derek Neas / News Tribune)



By Chuck Frederick, Duluth News Tribune

The shop, straight out of the 1950s, still carries a hint of perfume and a gush of pamper.

But, like most things from the ’50s, West Duluth’s Magnolia Shoppe has been passed by time and fast food and microwaved dinners and modern society’s craving for instant gratification.

After half a century as one of Duluth’s most exclusive dress shops — the kind of place where sales ladies presented gowns to customers and treated them like the friends they became — the Magnolia Shoppe is about to become another hazy memory of a bygone era.

Longtime owner Mildred Ramseth is retiring. And while a closing date hasn’t been set for her Grand Avenue store, a going-out-of-business sale was launched the week after Thanksgiving.

"When people came in here, whether it was a bride or just someone who needed a dress for an affair, they were always made to feel special," said Deb Gergen, who worked in the shop when she was in high school and again after college.

"A bride would walk away from this shop feeling like a queen," said Gergen, Ramseth’s niece. "We practically followed them down the aisle, going to the church to help them into their dresses and to make sure their trains were straight and just so. We always took pride in helping to make that fairy-tale wedding come true. That’s just the kind of shop this always was."

Bev Menart, the store manager for about 30 years, knows women who bought prom dresses and wedding dresses at the Magnolia Shoppe, then returned years later when their daughters needed gowns for prom or for their weddings. "Customers are just now finding out that we’re closing," she said. "They come in and it’s ‘What are we going to do for dresses and gowns?’ They say if you go to the mall everything looks the same. And you just don’t get the same service at the mall that you do here." (Derek Neas / News Tribune)


Like full-service gas stations, doctors who make house calls and barber shops run by old men, it’s also the kind of shop that just doesn’t exist much anymore.

Ramseth, who worked at a downtown dress shop in the 1940s, bought the Magnolia Shoppe in 1949 after seeing it advertised in the newspaper. With her husband, Arnold, working full-time for the Duluth Missabe and Iron Range Railway, she moved the business almost entirely on her own from Gary-New Duluth to 38th Avenue West.

In 1954, she bought a house at the store’s present location, had part of it torn down and had the front of the shop rebuilt, then moved with her husband into an upstairs apartment in the back. The couple never had children.

"She was really a pioneer," said Gergen, who now works for the Challenge Center in Superior. "A woman establishing a business of her own in the 1950s was just unheard of. And then keeping it going all these years.

She’s really someone to admire. She deserves recognition for her accomplishments.’

Ramseth wasn’t available to be interviewed for this story.

"She loved it every day, this place," Gergen said. "It was always her dream. She lived her dream. She just loved to sell."

"I remember her saying to customers, ‘That’s you. Oh, that’s you,’ " recalled Catherine John, a sales clerk for 15 years, retiring in 1972 when her two daughters got married.

"She always wanted to do better than the month before," John said. "Always. I feel sad that the store is closing. I have three daughters and a daughter-in-law who all shopped here and bought dresses here. This is a real loss for Duluth."

"I feel proud I was able to work at the Magnolia Shoppe. It was an exclusive place," said Min Erickson, who also worked 15 years as a sales clerk and who also retired in 1972 when a daughter got married. "We had a good bunch here. Millie always said that. She always said she could never have replaced us."

At the Magnolia Shoppe, the sales clerks always wore dresses of plain colors. Ramseth insisted they look professional, but she didn’t want their clothes to upstage the inventory.

Customers were gently led to the frilly softness of the front room, while sales clerks dashed to the storeroom in back to retrieve gown after gown. Brides-to-be were escorted to the living room-like bridal boutique upstairs.

Longtime customer Dorothy Thomas remembers accompanying her daughters to the upstairs bridal boutique at the Magnolia Shoppe. "I knew they’d find what I wanted there. There was always such a good selection," Thomas said. "My girls were treated so wonderfully there. There aren’t many places where you get that attention, that personal touch. In the Magnolia Shoppe, you’re a customer, a cherished customer and you were always made to feel that way." (Derek Neas / News Tribune)


"If you bought something here, you knew you had a nice garment. And you knew no other girl at the prom would be wearing the same thing," said Irja Gaskill, a sales clerk for eight years starting in 1968. "It was THE place in town. A lot of nice people came here to buy clothes."

Those nice people included Ruth Neipp, who bought two mother-of-the-bride dresses from the Magnolia Shoppe some 25 years ago. She still has them.

"I was gorgeous in them," the North Shore neighborhood woman said. "I don’t have any more daughters to marry off, but the ones I do have just won’t let me get rid of those dresses."

Neipp hadn’t been to the shop in decades. But she and her husband, Robert, checkbook in hand, stopped by this month after spotting the hand-painted "Closing Sale’ signs in the window. They were in the neighborhood anyway, buying Christmas cookies at the Danish Bakery.

"Oh, it’s such a shame you’re going out of business," Neipp said while shopping. "This makes me sad. This place always had the best-quality clothes and so much to choose from. I still remember the name of the girl who sold my dresses to me. Her name was Lois."

Lois Stadler, undoubtedly. She was the second employee ever hired at the Magnolia Shoppe and worked there 27 years. She knows the shop will likely be put up for sale.

"It’s always been a beautiful place to work. The atmosphere here, the beautiful building," Stadler said. "We were all very proud to have worked here. Very proud. It would be nice if someone could come in and carry on the tradition."

"It would never be the same, though," Erickson said. "We always took the time to get to know our customers. We learned what they liked and we knew what to show them. We took care of people here and we had a lot of good times.

"The big stores have all taken over now," she said. "Customers just don’t expect that kind of service anymore. And that’s really too bad. It’s such a shame that we’ve lost that."

Magnolia Shoppe owner Mildred Ramseth added the store’s name and familiar logo to the tags inside every garment she sold. But she never included sizes on the tags. If a customer insisted she was a size 8 but was really larger, Ramseth could bring out the larger gown and the customer could leave feeling good about herself. "She was quite a saleswoman," store manager Bev Menart said. (Derek Neas / News Tribune)

4 Responses

  1. Anne McGill

    My Mom bought many elegant dresses and gowns at the Magnolia Shoppe. My sister and I couldn’t wait to grow up so we could shop there. We ended up moving to southern Wisconsin, but I did receive some of my Mom’s dresses when she had worn them a few times. I remember one in particular, I wore to a wedding and received so many compliments. The just don’t sell lovely dresses like that anymore unless you buy vintage or sew.

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