When Kristi Larson first saw the Zamboni building in downtown Owatonna, she knew she had hit the jackpot.
“This is the most perfect spot for a boutique,” Larson remembers telling herself 24 years ago. “Somebody will be lucky to be there next.”
After more than two decades in business dressing the women of Owatonna in fun and festive garb, Larson announced at the beginning of the week that her business, Kristi’s Clothing at 301 North Cedar Ave., will be permanently closed at the end of April. Though she put in a good fight throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including a nearly two-month closure during the state stay-at-home order, Larson said she is one of the many business casualties at the hand of the pandemic.
“We just had a really tough year last year with COVID, it hit us really hard, and then January and February was even harder,” Larson said. “It got to the point financially where I just needed to close. It was a very, very difficult decision.”
Larson said she tried everything she could to keep the doors of her beloved boutique open, including taking a second job during the day last summer to keep the lights on. Unfortunately, Larson said being in the clothing business during a period where nobody was traveling or attending events was too big of a hill for her to get over.
“Usually in February and March I have people coming in buying things for their spring vacations, or trips to Europe in the summer, or weekend girlfriend trips to Nashville – those were my customers,” Larson said. “People were working from home, there were no weddings, no funerals, no showers, no graduations. My customers were coming in even now saying they don’t really need anything.”
Approaching the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, Larson is the first business owner in Steele County to openly discuss how the pandemic forced her business to close. Spurgy’s Bar and Grill in Hope announced they would not be reopening in April due to the pandemic, but declined further public comment with the media. Party Plus Crafts in downtown Owatonna also closed in July, but cited retirement as the primary reason for the owner’s decision. Brad Meier, president of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said the last piece of news he wanted to hear was a small business going under.
“This is obviously not what we want and we hope there’s not more of these, but it’s hard to say what the lasting effects of the closures and reduced events and people going will be and how it will impact others,” Meier said. “With small businesses it becomes a huge part of the owner’s life. You spend so much energy and time there and so much of your life is about the customers and the employees. Everybody is really sad to see that she is closing the business, but we know this is a challenging time for Kristi, too.”
Larson said it’s been an emotional rollercoaster since making her decision between the frustrations of the circumstances and the overwhelming love and support she has received from the customers who have all become her friends.
“I often knew most of the people who walked through my door and that was so much fun,” Larson said. “It has really been my home away from home and that’s exactly what it always felt like, like our friends were coming over to our home.”
With the upcoming streetscape project and hotel construction slated to take place this summer, Larson said it did play a small factor into her decision knowing it would be that much more difficult to survive with limited access to her shop. Though she is worried about the other businesses along Cedar Avenue during the construction period, Larson added that she knows the project is only going to lead to a bigger and better downtown.
“A year from now it’s all going to be wonderful for downtown,” Larson said. “I just want to tell people, though, that if you want our downtown stores to survive that you need to go shop at them. Go support your local stores, don’t just shop on Amazon.”
Larson added that it was an especially hard day on Tuesday following the announcement of Target’s numbers that showed how well the company did during the pandemic. Meier echoed Larson’s remarks that small businesses need the support and patronage of their communities in order to survive the upcoming year or more – whenever things get back to some sort of “normal.”
“There has never been a time where local support is more important for our businesses,” Meier said. “We’ve said it all along that those who are the most impacted by COVID-19 are our independent, small businesses which includes retailors, restaurants, entertainment venues and fitness centers.”
Seeing Larson close up shop is proving difficult for the community, with Meier stating that Larson was always a wonderful example of what it is to be a small business owner in the downtown district.
“We are so appreciative of the work she’s done as a business owner for two decades, she’s been excellent all those years,” Meier said. “She’s always been a promotor of Owatonna and downtown and hopefully she knows she will definitely be missed as both an individual and business owner here.”
The love is clearly reciprocated as a tearful Larson expressed her eternal gratitude for the community that allowed her to do what she loved for so many years.
“Owatonna was very good to me and I have made so many friends to the point that they are truly my family,” Larson said. “I just am very thankful that I had a great 24-year run at it. It was so much fun and it was wonderful while it lasted.”
Both Larson and Meier said they are optimistic that a new retailor will scoop up the prime location the boutique will be leaving vacant – just hopefully not for long.