MILDRED — It’s not easy to keep a grocery store in a town with a population of just 21 people, but Loren and Regena Lance want to honor the history and nostalgia of Charlie Brown’s Store — now known as the Mildred Store.
“Our focus is to keep this place. That’s it,” Loren Lance said. “We’re not trying to make a living out of this. As long as it supports itself, that’s all we’re asking.”
During a meeting with the Allen County Tomorrow — ACT Together group Thursday afternoon, Loren Lance talked about the challenges the store has faced since it re-opened in 2014. The building also serves as a venue for events such as weddings and a monthly musical jam session.
The store’s history dates back to 1912, when it sold hardware and served as an auto repair shop. Brothers Charles and Carl Brown took over the store from their father and uncle after World War II and started selling groceries, appliances and hardware. In more recent decades, Charles and his wife, Lucille, ran the store, which was well known for its deli sandwiches. Charlie died in 2001; Lucille in 2016.
The store closed briefly in 2014 but opened a few months later after the Lances bought it. They’ve since installed LED lighting throughout the building to reduce electric costs, which run about $1,100 per month.
It’s been a challenge to keep the shelves stocked with fresh grocery items, Loren said. They joined forces with small groceries in St. Paul and McCune to increase their purchasing power from wholesale grocery companies. That allowed the Mildred Store to lower its prices within the last two months; the store now can compete with other area grocery stores.
“This is how it used to look years ago,” Loren said, pointing to the full shelves. “When we first came in here, there was hardly anything left. It got pretty bare for awhile. A lot of stuff got outdated.”
They’ve attracted attention and acclaim. In 2016, they were named rural grocery leaders of the year by K-State’s Huck Boyd Institute for Regional Development. The store has been featured in regional and national magazines. On a near-daily basis, the store welcomes visitors from Kansas City to Oklahoma City and beyond, Loren said.
“One thing we try to do is generate anything we can to bring more people in. [Word] is getting out there,” he said.
The building also features space for meetings or events, and another area used for musical performances. The Lances recently brought in Regena’s great-grandmother’s historic covered wagon, which dates back to the 1800s and has been featured in many area parades. The wagon was placed inside the building for a wedding and has remained since.
In December, the Lances offered a community potluck dinner to celebrate Christmas. Charlie and Lucille Brown often organized potluck dinners at Christmastime, but it had been at least 17 years since the last one. The Lances were surprised by the response.
“There were 120 people in here. I was set up for 30,” Loren said.
Every third Saturday the building is opened to the public for a music night. Musicians just show up and play, surrounded by antiques and metal signs that boast of the Brown Brothers’ business ventures. Typically, between 120 to 160 show up for such events.
“The history is here. We’re just bringing it back,” Loren said. “It’s pretty amazing you can do that with a town of 21 people.”
PHOTO: Loren Lance talks to members of the Allen County Tomorrow — ACT Together group about the music nights offered at the Mildred Store every third Saturday. To Lance’s left are Angela Murphy, Cole Herder, Karen Gilpin, Kelli Frazell and Regina Woodworth. REGISTER/VICKIE MOSS