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Small towns, cozy shopping

Steve Richter of Richter's Mens Wear in Perham is ready for the holiday season. David Samson / The Forum1 / 4
Bette Pitzel shows off the new basement addition to the Back Porch Gift & Home Decor store in downtown Perham, Minn. David Samson / The Forum2 / 4
Cheryl Harrison from Wadena, Minn., strolls the streets of Perham. David Samson / The Forum3 / 4
The shops in Perham are decorated for the upcoming holidays. David Samson / The Forum4 / 4

PERHAM, Minn. - Steve Richter won't ask his customers to leave their Thanksgiving table to shop at his store.

And he doesn't expect them to rise and shine at 4 a.m. on Black Friday so they can bust down his door.

But he did plan to open a little early today (7 a.m.), and getting to his Richter's Mens Wear store in Perham is always a breeze for customers.

"There's parking right in front of the store, you don't have to walk two or three blocks," said Richter, whose father founded the store 43 years ago.

Perham's not the only small town where businesses aim to attract holiday shoppers in ways that cut against the grain of the steep Black Friday discounts many retailers offer.

Treat them right

When he talks about Black Friday, Richter makes it clear that when it comes to doing business, there is more to the equation than low, low prices.

"With me, you get to see the boss," Richter said. "I wait on you. I can make all the decisions.

"You don't have the hustle, the bustle. The craziness, the pushing," he added.

"We have free gift wrapping and all the perks. We carry out the gifts. We'll do what it takes. We can beat 'em at that," said Richter, whose customer base spans generations.

"You treat them right, they come back to you," he said. "They know you, so they shop from you."

Richter said Black Friday in the Perham community is capped by a holiday parade that begins Friday evening. Local eateries, he said, offer promotions to keep people around well after dark.

Santa kicks it off

In Casselton, N.D., residents like to give Thanksgiving plenty of room, reserving their holiday shindig for the Monday after.

In a tradition that began years ago, the local ambulance service dispatches a rig about 4:30 p.m. on the Monday following Thanksgiving.

It picks up a lone passenger sporting a red and white outfit and rocking a snowy beard and whisks him to city hall for a public appearance.

With lights flashing and siren blaring, the ambulance creates an entrance Rudolph only wishes he could match.

"The smiles on kids' faces are unbelievable," said Greg Kempel, a volunteer with the ambulance service and owner of Maple River Winery and Distillery, in Casselton.

The business observes Black Friday and the start of the holiday shopping season with later hours and specials.

"We always have a free Pride of Dakota product with every order beginning on Thanksgiving and running through noon on Black Friday," Kempel said.

Also, customers who purchase wine or spirits at the winery or distillery tasting rooms on Black Friday receive a Pride of Dakota gift bag.

According to Kempel, small town businesses know they can't compete with the big box stores when it comes to things like digital TVs and computers, but he said the drug stores and hardware stores that line small town Main Streets are still chock-full of great gift ideas.

"It's a niche," he said. "Someone looking for a really nice gift for grandma, or mom or dad, they can find a really nice one right here in Casselton.

"In our family, we do 100 percent of our shopping right here," Kempel added.

Customers' respect

Bette Pitzel, an owner of The Back Porch Gifts & Home Décor store in Perham, said many small stores like hers work hard to offer items that set them apart from the bigger stores in bigger cities.

Also, she said she doesn't believe in asking employees to work Sundays, with the exception of three Sundays a year during the summer.

"We feel Sunday is a time to go to church and be with your family," Pitzel said.

"I know it hurts our bottom line, but our customers really do respect that and they have told us they respect us for being that way," she said, adding that most of the small stores in Perham are closed Sundays for similar reasons.

For Richter, the push in larger communities to start the Black Friday rush earlier and earlier is not something to celebrate.

"The big box stores, they're just blowing this completely out of the water," he said.

"Eventually," he added, "Thanksgiving won't be there, they'll completely take that away.

"I wish they wouldn't do it," Richter said, "but competition pushes people to do funny things."