November 19, 1995
Mike Cragin, owner of the Far West Market in Gary-New Duluth, will close up shop next month. The store is located at 1306 Commonwealth Avenue in the Gary-New Duluth neighborhood. (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)
WRONG SIZE FOR SURVIVAL
GARY’S OLD FAR WEST MARKET FINALLY FALLS TO MEGAMARKETS AND NEARBY CONVENIENCE STORES
There’s a sense of relief in Mike Cragin’s voice as he talks about the closing of his little three-aisle market and deli.
His last two paychecks sit on a desk in his basement office, located inside an old walk-in cooler. There’s not enough money in the account to cover those checks, he says.
After more than 65 years in business, the Far West Market in the Gary-New Duluth neighborhood will close sometime next month.
Cragin, who has owned the market for the past 12 years, says several factors brought him to this point.
Too many convenience stores have opened between his Gary-New Duluth neighborhood and the West Duluth shopping district near Central Avenue. The supermarket warehouses that have come to town in recent years have also cut into business.
Earlier this month, Cragin took a job as meat manager at the Jubilee store in Cloquet.
"It’s like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders," Cragin, 37, said during a recent interview, as a stream of customers came through the market.
Mike Cragin, owner of the Far West Market in Gary-New Duluth, stands by a sausage stuffer that is still used and may be as old as the market, which opened in the 1920s. While some neighbors find the store just what they need, owner Mike Cragin says the growth of larger supermarkets and the proliferation of convenience stores in nearby West Duluth have taken away customers. (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)
The Far West Market’s specialty — homemade sausage and lunchmeats — still draws customers. But in general, people are eating less meat than they did 10 years ago, Cragin said. Another saving grace is the catering business he runs out of the store. Without that, he said, the Far West Market probably would have shut down four years ago.
There still are a number of neighborhood markets and delis in Duluth. They find ways to survive without gas pumps out front or acres of shelf space inside.
But some have closed in the past few years: the former Snow White market in Woodland, an IGA store in Morgan Park.
"I look back at the good, old days when your checkbook was your barometer of how you were doing," said John Nygard, owner of the Fourth Street Market in Duluth’s Central Hillside. Now the business and the bookkeeping are more complex, and large competitors are always a factor.
Nygard is lucky. A large percentage of his customers live within walking distance of the store. And the business got a boost when the Sixth Avenue IGA closed two years ago. But there are still challenges.
"One of the most critical factors is larger stores getting preferential treatment from suppliers," he said. The stores that buy in bulk get more attention from sales representatives, he said. "They tell me it’s cheaper to deliver to a big store."
Kim Brown bags groceries for a customer at Far West Market in the Gary-New Duluth neighborhood in November 1995. (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)
At the Far West Market, there are countless longtime customers who regularly stopped by for milk and bread, and some who came for bigger purchases.
Millie Belich, a member of St. George’s Serbian Orthodox Church, located four blocks from the market, has been buying beef for pasties from the store for the past 20 years. The church choir sold the pasties twice a year as a fund-raiser. The store also catered church dinners and weddings.
"If we needed more of something, he would bring it right up to us," she said. "He’s going to be missed very, very much."
Cragin said he’s always had to work hard just to keep the Far West Market operating day-to-day, even with 8-10 part-time employees. And Cragin says he hasn’t had a vacation — except for some long weekends — for 9 1/2 years.
The earliest picture Cragin has of the store dates to 1929, when it was owned by the Burger family. The Nygards owned it for most of the 1970s and Cragin says they gave him a good deal on the store when he bought it in the early 1980s.
Cragin has 10 sisters and two brothers, and the Far West Market has been a family business in its truest sense. All his siblings except two sisters worked there. He’s also employed eight nieces and nephews over the years, he said.
He’s been trying to sell the store for two years, but now plans to sell off the grocery stock and equipment and hope someone will buy the building.
"If someone’s in the middle of a recipe and they need a green pepper, it’s all the way to West Duluth now," he said.
The Far West Market building at 1306 Commonwealth now houses Moose Lodge #1478.
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– Andrew Krueger