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General Store finds success by catering to value shoppers

Bruce Barany stands amid a riot of merchandise at The General Store on Thursday. (Jesse Tinsley)
Bruce Barany stands amid a riot of merchandise at The General Store on Thursday. (Jesse Tinsley)

Bruce Barany, 57, is CEO of The General Store at 2424 N. Division St. The family-owned Spokane business has been at that same location for 66 years.

This weekend marks the anniversary of the store’s opening at its current location at the corner of Carlisle and Division.

Q: What is a good day for you at the store?

A: When I come into work and 10 people are waiting at the door. That means people are coming and you’ll probably have a busy day.

Q: What’s a bad day here?

A: A bad day at the store is a February day with sleet mixed with rain. And it looks like the flu outside.

Q: Who started the store and when?

A: It was my dad, William S. Barany Sr. He grew up in Flint, Mich., and decided to join the Marines in 1938, thinking it was a two-year stint. They sent him to Johnston Island (northwest of Hawaii), and because he was pretty mechanical, he was put in charge of the island desalinization plant. Later he ended up in Hawaii.

He married my mom, a nurse he met in a military hospital there. After the war, they moved to San Francisco. My mom was from South Dakota, so she told him to move somewhere where it didn’t shake. They moved to Spokane.

After they moved to Spokane with two children, dad began buying surplus lots from military bases. Right after the war consumer goods were scarce. So he began selling blankets, coats and other things. At first he sold those items by curb-stoning, not having a retail store.

Then in 1948 or ’49 he opened his first store on East Sprague. It was called General Surplus.

Q: Did that store become The General Store?

A: No. My dad then added two stores downtown also called General Surplus. About then the surplus military supplies began petering out and consumer goods became more available. So he bought the property here in 1959 and he opened the first General Store. We thought about branching out a few times but we more or less decided to keep all our eggs in one basket.

Q: What do you want people to see as the major feature or appeal of The General Store?

A: We are the hometown store, the hometown team. All the dollars spent in the store stay in Spokane, and not funneled off to Little Rock, or Chicago where the box store headquarters are.

Q: Has the store ever lost money?

A: I’m not sure we lost money, but in 2007 and 2008 we didn’t make any money. Those were misery years.

Q: What are the indicators and sales telling you about the current business climate for Spokane?

A: What we have noticed so far is that sales of work wear are noticeably up compared to the previous three years. If that’s indicative, hopefully Spokane is pulling ahead of what you’re reading about all the time.

Q: How many people do you employ?

A: We have between 60 and 65 people. That’s down from our heyday, of about 100 people in ’06.

Q: What’s made the store successful in face of the competition of so many other retailers, like Costco, Walmart and others?

A: We know that Spokane is the home of the value shopper. People are real careful here … So we work very hard on being focused on customer service, because that will differentiate us from everyone else.

Q: What sections of the store are your bread-and-butter sales leaders?

A: I’d start with work clothes. Our Carhartt insulated work clothing selection is as competitive as it gets with anyone in the area. The same with shoes, work boots and cowboy boots. Our “girls” shop and look around, and they know how to set our prices accordingly.

Another niche we’ve developed is oversize clothing. Our clothing buyer knows that in Spokane for whatever reason there are more bigger people.

So she caters to X-sizes, double-X, 4X and up to special-size orders, because there are some very large people who we want as customers.

Sporting goods and marine water sports are also good areas for us.

Q: When did your dad leave the business?

A: Dad quit when he was 90, four years ago. He’s still alive and would be down here if he could.

Q: How many of the five sons and daughters decided to work there?

A: My older brother took over and stayed here until three years ago when he decided to retire. I came in after graduating from college in 1973.

Except for me and my brother William Paul, none of the children took a direct role in running the business. The others headed off in different directions for different careers.

Q: When you step down, who’s going to run the business?

A: Well, we have four children, a 28-year-old son, a 22-year-old daughter, and twins who are 17. Right now, the great hope is the 17-year-olds will have an interest (in carrying on the business).

Q: What’s your feeling about being reliant on goods made in China?

A: If you look at our labels, it’s China China China. We can’t compete without buying Chinese stuff. It bugs me. I don’t like it. It also affects our inventory and supply chain and when we get goods. It used to be the big trade shows were in September and October. Now with so much being shipped from China, the shows are moved up to July and August.

So, it’s actually good to see things come in from places other than China. It’s nice to sell American stuff.

Q: Such as?

A: Gun safes, sleeping bags, and some (hunting) bows are made in the U.S. Some optics – rifle scopes – are also made in the U.S. And Carhartt clothing, and boots, like White’s Boots, also come from here.

Q: But if everyone is selling Chinese goods, how do you still stay in the game, competitively?

A: We belong to a number of co-op organizations that let us buy items at their lower prices because of high-volume orders. Like Ace Hardware, whose co-op we’ve been part of since the 1970s.

With Ace we can order from their warehouse twice a week. We can order a pallet of Ice Melt, instead of ordering a whole truckload of Ice Melt and having to put 21 pallets in our warehouse if it doesn’t sell.

It’s worth buying through the co-ops. It keeps us from filling our warehouse. However, sometimes we’re better buyers than sellers. If I showed you our warehouse, you’d see what I mean.

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