Far From the Madding Crowd

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Author: Michael Corkery
Date: Nov. 22, 2018
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,835 words
Lexile Measure: 1100L

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The ''33 hour'' sale at Dunham's begins the morning after Thanksgiving and lasts through Monday, when the local schools are closed for deer-hunting season.

There are no giant sales on flat-screen televisions or stockpiles of the hottest holiday toy. The big draw is the hot chocolate and the chance to win a $100 gift card.

Don't expect internet deals, either. ''Pardon our delay, but good things take time,'' Dunham's website apologizes. ''Our online store will be coming soon.''

Change comes slowly to Dunham's, one of the few small family-owned department stores still operating in the United States. The store was founded in the early 1900s in Wellsboro, Pa., a town of about 3,200 people surrounded by dairy farms, fracking fields and woods.

''We don't do the Black Friday madness,'' said Nancy Dunham, 75, who runs the store with her husband and two daughters. ''We are trying to offer something different.''

At a time of rapid innovation, when giant retailers are competing on speed and convenience with features like two-day shipping and curbside pickup, many department stores symbolize obsolescence and decline. Yet Dunham's, a store with a limited assortment of furniture, housewares and clothing, often at higher prices, has managed to compete in its own way with Amazon and the Walmart supercenter, which is only 12 miles away and sells just about everything.

The Dunham family, now in its fourth generation as retailers, has created a niche with shoppers who feel left behind by e-commerce, or choose to opt out of it.

Dunham's draws from a 50-mile radius in north central Pennsylvania, a region that is home to many older people who don't typically shop online. Many regular customers do not have home computers, tablets or smartphones. The store also attracts tourists and retirees who have moved to the area.

Dunham's occupies three adjoining buildings on Main Street of varying heights and design that reflect the store's history, but also its continuity. The largest of the storefronts, a three-story building constructed during the Great Depression, carries the family name chiseled into the concrete facade.

On a snowy morning the week before Thanksgiving, the scent of cinnamon rolls warming in the cafe wafted through every nook of the store's 35,000 square feet.

Shoppers trickled in from the cold: A man browsed for sweaters, a woman looked for winter boots for her mother, and Jim Rice hunted for a lined flannel shirt in a black and yellow pattern.

Mr. Rice thinks nothing of driving 28 miles from his home near the New York border to browse at Dunham's.

Mr. Rice worked for 55 years in a glass company warehouse in Elmira, N.Y., while also taking care of his wife, who had Alzheimer's. She died last year on Christmas night.

''I always liked this store,'' said Mr. Rice, 77. ''They know how to treat you.''

Dunham's has tried to build its business around local needs and tastes.

In its early years, Dunham's operated a ''rolling store,'' a truck that traveled to farms to sell sugar, clothing and candy, often bartering for maple syrup and buckwheat that they milled into pancake flour.

Back then, Wellsboro was a vibrant farming and manufacturing hub connected to big cities in the east by railroad. Corning Glass ran a factory that made light bulbs and employed more than 100 people.

During World War II, the glass plant started making Christmas ornaments when shipments of popular German decorations were banned from the United States.

The town considered the plant so important, residents said, that people used to take turns climbing to the top of a hotel roof to scout for German planes that might want to bomb it.

Those days are long gone. Dairy farming is struggling and the glass factory has closed. The area, home to a natural mountain gorge billed as the ''Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,'' attracts tourists during the warmer months, second homeowners and hunters. But the winter months are slow.

Fracking -- the process of extracting natural oil and gas by shooting water and other fluids deep underground -- has helped pump money into the economy. But workers in that industry tend to stay in town for a few weeks at a time and then go home to their families in other states. The gas companies supply many of the workers with gear and clothing, which means they don't usually shop at Dunham's.

With no hope for a boom that could transform the local economy, the store takes small steps to try to stoke sales. When large retailers cut back on an older women's clothing line, known for polyester pants with elastic waistbands and shortened cuffs, Dunham's expanded its offerings.

''My customer, the little old lady, is being forgotten,'' said Nancy Dunham's daughter Ann Dunham Rawson. ''Other companies don't think that type clothing is much fun.''

The bankruptcies of national chains like Sears and Bon-Ton are driving traffic to Dunham's, too. But the demise of those large stores also means fewer suppliers of affordable clothing, which makes it harder for Dunham's to locate product.

Ms. Rawson came of age in retail of the 1990s, when consumerism was at its peak.

''People just bought everything,'' she said. ''But the brakes have been put on that. They don't want to own stuff that sits around the house collecting dust. They want experiences.''

After college, she went to work for Lord & Taylor in Raleigh, N.C. Within a few years, her father, John Dunham, asked her to come home.

She hesitated at first, leery of returning to rural Pennsylvania at age 25. But she wanted to work alongside her mother and father, an experienced merchant and merchandiser.

The store has survived a flood, fire and a tornado. But the most difficult period came during the past few years.

People's shopping habits, she said, seemed to change drastically. Men and women dressed more casually, upending dependable retail formulas. It used to be that if a customer bought a dress shirt or khakis, you could sell him a tie to go with it. But who wears ties anymore?

''I am struggling with who our men's customer is,'' Ms. Rawson said.

Women's clothing can be equally confounding. Ms. Rawson said Wellsboro had never been a ''little black dress'' type of town.

It used to take two seasons for a trend to reach Wellsboro, Ms. Rawson said, giving the store plenty of time to find the product. Instagram, which Dunham's does not use, has accelerated that timetable. Often by the time she starts looking for the item, Ms. Rawson said, the trend has already passed.

Maia Mahosky, 25, came to the store last week searching for work clothes. ''Something professional, but not too fuddy-duddy,'' she said.

Ms. Mahosky studied dance in college and now works at a car dealership nearby. She shopped at Dunham's as a child and realized how much she missed the store when she moved away.

''I think my generation is craving that experience of not being overwhelmed by technology,'' she said. ''But I am probably a bit of anomaly.''

To Ms. Rawson, 2016 and 2017 was the ''this is it'' moment, when the store's future seemed most in doubt. Her father, 81, was diagnosed with Parkinson's, and both of his brothers, who were also involved in the business, died.

The younger generation has stepped in. Ms. Rawson's husband, Joe Rawson, a National Guard airman, runs the family's hardware store, which is next to the department store. Her sister, Ellen Dunham Bryant, left her law firm and moved back from Washington, D.C., to manage the department store's cafe and a hotel across the street.

The family spent months applying to Starbucks for the right to sell its coffee in the cafe. It's now the only place selling Starbucks for many miles, attracting gas workers who line up in their fire-retardant jumpsuits and big boots for drinks topped with whipped cream and drizzled with caramel.

''The things you see in a small town,'' said Nancy Dunham, chuckling.

That coffee brought Mary Murphy, 70, and Nancy Szabo, 72, to Dunham's last week. The two friends sat by the cafe window overlooking Main Street, deep in quiet conversation. They were talking, as they do every Tuesday, about dreams.

Their ''dream group'' meets weekly, often in the cafe in Dunham's. They spend an hour trying to help each other interpret what their dreams might mean.

''Write down every dream you remember in a loose leaf notebook and put the date on the top,'' Ms. Murphy said. ''The vivid dreams are the important ones.''

After their discussions, Ms. Szabo and Ms. Murphy sometimes like to go shopping. Ms. Murphy, who grew up in Wellsboro, likes to buy toys and takes them to her grandchildren in St. Louis. Ms. Szabo, who retired to the area from New Jersey, said that a sales clerk had recently complimented her on her looks when she held a shirt up in the mirror.

Dunham's employs as many as 50 people during the busier months, many of them part time. The store hires mostly older workers who want to supplement their Social Security income. Nancy Dunham said it would be difficult for a younger person with a family to live on the store's staring hourly wage of $7.25, which is Pennsylvania's minimum.

Mrs. Dunham said the store cannot afford to compete with large retailers on wages and benefits. ''We are at the bottom of the pay scale,'' she said.

Connie Cumiskey, 66, works in the card and gift department at Dunham's, and said she depends on it to support herself and the six cats she adopted.

Ms. Cumiskey, who does not own a computer or smartphone, has never bought anything online. She worries that the younger generation has no interest in shopping in stores.

She loves selling greeting cards like the ones with brightly colored songbirds ''so pretty you could frame them.'' But with fewer people sending cards, the store is cutting back on inventory.

''It's a tough time to be in retail,'' Ms. Cumiskey said.

While the Dunhams watch the industry warily, they aren't swayed by what everyone else is doing. They still have no deadline for starting online sales.

''I hope people want to keep interacting with each other in brick and mortar stores,'' Nancy Dunham said. ''It's one way we learn from one another. It frightens me to think of a world without it.''


PHOTOS: Dunham's Rolling Store traveled to farms to sell clothes and candy in earlier years. Right, the Dunham family. Below, Dunham's storefront in Wellsboro, Pa. (B1); Shoppers combing through Dunham's racks. ''We don't do the Black Friday madness,'' said Nancy Dunham, 75. ''We are trying to offer something different.''; From left, an old cash register at Dunham's Department Store; Joe Rawson, a National Guard airman, runs the family's hardware store; Connie Cumiskey, 66, who works in the card and gift department and depends on the income to support herself, said, ''It's a tough time to be in retail.'' (PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROSS MANTLE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES) (B6)

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A562953653