Black Friday in a hardscrabble town

Black Friday is like any other day in Phillips, Wisconsin.

Nestled between the lakes and northwoods birch trees, Phillips is a hardscrabble town of 1,675 souls who by on summer tourism, winter hunting, and a lot of grit — the kind of people you meet in the songs of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger. My family and I arrived here Thanksgiving day and holed up in an ice-bound cabin that evoked inevitable comparisons to The Shining. As my wife and daughter built snowmen near a frozen lake, the consumerist in me wondered how this quiet little town treats the holiday shopping rush while the rest of the nation wallows in 3:00 a.m. store openings, eager mobs, and extreme door buster sales. Here is what I found out.

Thursday, November 25

We arrive on a bitter cold afternoon, the sky a brilliant blue. Downtown consists of a dead strip of diners, taverns, general stores, and gas stations. Most everyone is either out hunting deer or at home eating Thanksgiving dinner. At the north end of town, the low slung Skyline motel, deserted and dark, looks like the kind of place an outlaw in a Coen brothers movie would stay. At the Copps grocery store, I spot a blond woman in a sweat shirt and jeans thumbing through the town newspaper, The Bee.

“See any Black Friday sales advertised in The Bee?” I ask.

She glances up and places a few ads in my hands. “Not much,” she laughs. “Maybe Ace Hardware. You can have these ads. They’re free.”

They’re free. Words to live by. For Phillips is a thrifty town with not much money to spare. Ask someone here what you do for a living, and the answers aren’t always simple. You might hear, “I work at the plastics plant and I fix boats” or “I run a snow plow, I clean motors, and I am a carpenter.” People do what they need to do to get by.

No Walmart here

I thank the woman for the free circulars and drive to our cabin, passing many “Hunters Welcome” signs hung in front of restaurants and shops. For deer hunting season is in full swing here.

I am to learn that during Thanksgiving week, it is the deer hunter, not the Black Friday shopper, who captures the town’s loyalty and interest. The deer hunters in their orange caps live in the woods all day and give to the town’s economy in the evening and early morning. They eat the town’s food, stay in the motels and cabins, and spend money on supplies and gasoline for their trucks. Hunters welcome — you got that right.

So far the only sign of Black Friday is a hastily made sign in front of Troy’s Appliances on Highway 13, which reads “All Week Black Friday Prices.” The sign, written in black marker on orange cardboard, is in sharp contrast to the TV ads we watch in our cabin advertising “sale, sale, sale!” at Kohl’s and JCPenney stores in neighboring counties to the south, and the advertisements from Amazon,com, eBay, DeepDiscount, PetSmart, and many other merchants flooding my email in-box. The ads call to me like sirens, but my family and I resist them as the afternoon turns to dusk and we join more family for a warm dinner, movie, playing in the snow, and reading books.

Will the pace in town pick up on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year? The ads in The Bee, now tucked away in our cabin, don’t promise much. Ace proudly announces that its doors will open at 7:00 a.m. and offers doorbuster sales like a Char-Broil Patio Bistro Infrared Grill for $99.99 or a Craftsman 12″ tool bag for $9.99.

And that’s about it. In 2007 and 2008, I joined suburban Chicago shoppers at 3:00 a.m. on Black Friday as I blogged about the day. I get the feeling I won’t need to be up at 3:00 a.m. this time.

Friday, November 26

It is 14 degrees outside and snowy when I leave our cabin at just before 7:00 a.m. to make sure I’m at Ace for the doorbuster sale. I sometimes forget that in weather like this you have to give yourself extra time just to get around — time to secure your gloves and hat, time to brew a cup of hot coffee, and time to warm up the car. I’m not sure what I’ll find at Ace — maybe a parking lot full of cars idling in the cold?

At first I think Ace is closed when I arrive. The sign by the highway is dark, and the parking lot is empty save for two 4×4 pick-ups. But I notice a dull yellow glow coming from the store and detect movement inside. So I walk in.

Not much here. Smaller doorbuster items protrude from a bin. Shop-vacs and sleds crowd the walls. I am outnumbered by four employees, two of whom stand waiting at check-out counters, and another two in the back who putter around and curse the cold and wind. You know it’s cold when the locals complain about it.

The clerks nod in my direction in a friendly sort of way, but otherwise everyone here seems resigned to a lonely morning of checking inventory and straightening shelves. When I leave, the parking lot remains a lonely, desolate place.

Black Friday 2010 in Phillips, Wisconsin

I head downtown, where hunters in their orange caps and overalls cluster around parked cars and trucks, dented and rusty. This is their country, and their time. The modest little diners have been plying them with coffee and eggs since earlier this morning before the hunters earn their keep in the frozen woods.

Downtown Phillips, Wisconsin

And not all of them make it back. The Bee carries a cryptic story about a 71-year-old man found November 22 by police officers dead in his tree stand. The cause of death is under investigation. The Bee also displays a front-page picture of a 14-year-old boy covered head to toe in orange camoflage. He smiles proudly as he holds the seven-point buck he claimed on opening weekend. His face is the picture of happiness.

The downtown stores don’t open any earlier than they normally do, but they attract at least a few shoppers poking around. One of my favorite stores in town is Northern Merchandise, which is like a dry good store from the Old West. Here, you can get anything from candy to a “Layin’ Around” chicken egg holder. A wall full of play dolls shares one end of the floor with a pile of table runners, stack of “no hunting” signs, and a George Foreman Grill.

Northern Merchandise window display

At Northern Merchandise, you may find dolls . . .

. . . skulls . . .

. . . and plenty of hot sauce

The clerk is a matronly looking woman in a black turtleneck who speaks with a thick, vaguely Eastern European accent. She eyeballs me while I wander around, decides I’m probably harmless, and putters around behind the counter.

The Northern Merchandise has existed for as long as we’ve been visiting over the years, maybe since the dawn of time. It’s always quiet and nearly empty when I’m here. I sometimes wonder how this place stay in business. The answer probably has to do with the fact that the nearest Walmart is too far away for regular shopping.

I try to snap a few photos of town, but taking my gloves off to operate my camera is about as enjoyable as sticking your hand in an bucket of cold ice in a blizzard. I decide it’s time for a warm-up in Bonnie’s Diner on the south end of town near Copps.

When I walk into the place, I notice eight men clustered in chairs around formica tables. Immediately, eight heads turn and eight faces look my way — tough, crusty, old faces creased with lines, but not hostile. They have the look of regulars having their morning coffee and shooting the breeze. A few wear orange caps.

From behind a bar, I hear a cheerful “Good morning!” and a woman with silvery hair, a black sweater, and blue jeans waves at me. I claim a spot on a ripped plastic bar stool and order a coffee. She has an approachable face.

“So . . . what does everyone do here for Black Friday?” I ask.

Here?” she replies. Nothing.”

She slides a copy of The Bee to me. “Check this out,” she says. “You might find some sales in here, but this is a sleepy town. You here visiting?”

I briefly tell her our story: we’ve been visiting with family for years, and my in-laws have considered Phillips a second home since the 1920s. I tell her I still mourn the closing of the Foytek bakery many years ago.

She smiles and seems pleased that I remember the Foytek bakery. She points behind her. “Mrs. Foytek’s daughter is working in the kitchen here right now.”

A man with a buzz cut who vaguely resembles John Candy stands up to pay for his coffee.

“Hey,” he says to me. “You might want to try Ace.”

Bonnie’s is a small, simple, but clean place that you might expect to find in a northwoods town — besides the formica tables, there are paintings of bear and elk on the white walls and a Bunn coffee machine behind the counter. Bonnie’s is famous for its food and carry-out pies (that northwoods flexibility again). You can pay for one cup of coffee and hang out for as long as you want. On a morning like this, it is not uncommon for customers to leave their cars running to keep warm while their owners relax inside.

The old men lean back in their chairs, and the women hang out on bar stools where they can trade gossip with the waitress who greeted me. The talk is of the best bait for ice fishing, the difficulty of operating a Cat in the heavy snow, and the pros and cons of bow-and-arrow hunting. An off duty waitress reminisces about her childhood adventure with northwoods moonshine (“Strong enough to burn the hair off a wooden leg”).

Happy hunters in Phillips, Wisconsin, 2010

The woman who greeted men obviously knows everyone. She asks a wiry man with wispy grey hair if he still likes to hunt for deer.

“Gave it up,” he replies.

“No!” she says.

“Oh, I never got tired of the hunting,” he says. “It was dragging the poor bastard home, skinning it, cutting it, and plucking all the stray hair out that got pretty annoying.”

He pays his fare, winks at me, and leaves.

One hunter has an update on the 71-year-old who was found dead Monday. Word on the street is that he had expired of a heart attack.

“Best way to go,” he says to no one in particular. “Doing something you love.”

Refuge for hunters

A car accident south of town Wednesday night is also a popular discussion topic. No one knows the entire story. Instead, each of the old men contribute a detail of their own to the mosaic that forms their collective report: two cars on Highway 13 hit head on. A woman was seriously injured. How was she rescued? Oh, the Jaws of Life. Is she OK? Looks like it. And damn, wouldn’t you know that accident closed the highway for a half hour.

Winter harvest in Phillips, Wisconsin, 2010

I realize that I don’t need to go anywhere else today to blog about Black Friday in Phillips. At Bonnie’s, I experience more camaraderie than I ever did hanging out with shoppers in the Chicago suburbs. This is a place where people don’t compare notes on where to find the cheapest flat screen TV. Bonnie’s is a place for growing old together.

In a town where economic hard times are a fact of life, Black Friday is little more than a somewhat amusing joke. Ironically, the residents of Phillips could benefit more than anyone else from the low-priced priced door busters and discounted clothing advertised at Kohl’s. But this part of the northwoods is beyond the reach of larger cities where a critical mass of shopping establishments provides the more well-to-do choices they don’t need.

In Phillips, Wisconsin, people don’t have a lot of material things on Black Friday, but they have each other.

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7 Responses to Black Friday in a hardscrabble town

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  2. Joe Nesset says:

    Thank you for visiting our town all of these years. As you were passing through town in the early morning did you happen to notice the Radio Shack store? We were open @ 5:30 a.m. and had about 10 people waiting to get in. We had ads running on t.v., newspaper and radio. This was our 5th black Friday event and we have opened early for it every year with much success. This year was our best year thus far as we were consistently busy until 9:00 p.m. when we closed. We set record numbers for not only our store but our entire district. Residents of price county know that we either have what they need or we can get it for them.
    I\’m not sure if you didn\’t see our well lit open sign or extremely bright flood lights that light up the whole building but we were open and people knew about it. We had 5,000 flyers go out in the bee and the extra shopper and we had a live radio remote promoting it.
    We are very pleased to not have a Wal-Mart in our town because we are a locally owned and operated store as every business here is. That being said we have a very knowledgeable staff and we offer better deals most of the time than you would find at Wal-Mart.
    Our community does have each other and we rely on people to shop locally. Believe it or not, most people in our town do shop locally and try to help each other out. While there are some items that you can not find in our town most people start here and then go elsewhere if need be.

    • ddeal says:

      Hey Joe, thank you for responding. I know your store on Lake Street downtown. I obviously missed what you did on Black Friday; oddly enough, the folks in town I talked with were not aware of your opening early, and a few people in Copps who were leafing through the circulars with me did not mention the ad (nor did I see it). That said, the more important thing is that others in town obviously know about what you are doing based on what you wrote. Thank you for pointing out your successful Black Friday experience — I really value replies like yours. Our family does get to Phillips as often as we can. I\’ll stop by next time we are in town to say hello, and if we are up north for Black Friday 2011 (a distinct possibility), I promise I will come by for your early-morning opening!

  3. Judith Boers says:

    Mr. Deal,
    I am glad to hear you like our community enough to come back year after year. It is that kind of a place.

    Just want to mention a couple of things you missed on Black Friday. Local children had a chance to meet and talk with Santa from 11 AM to 1 PM at the Wells Fargo Bank. This was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and Wells Fargo. A tadition that goes back many years.

    Cinema North Movie Theater and MarquipWardUnited co-sponsored three FREE showings of the family movie \”Dispicable Me\” on Friday at 10:30, 1:00, and 3:00. We had over 750 attendees. Only in a small caring town would you find these kind of events.

    I was wondering when you were in Northern Merchandise. I think I can count on one hand the times I have been in there when I was one of three or less customers there. Usually I have to wait at the counter for other customers before I can check out.

    By the way, I was one of the people who bought a TV from Radio shack on Black Friday, and my assistant\’s son was there at 5:30 AM to buy a lap top and cameras.

    We are looking forward to meeting you the next time you visit. Be sure to stop into the Chamber Office, our hours are 9 to 4 Monday through Friday.

    • ddeal says:

      Thanks so much for your comments, and I look forward to coming back to Phillips soon. One of the things that I came to appreciate about Phillips as I researched my Black Friday blog post is that Phillips does not worship at the alter of consumerism like so many other places do on Black Friday. My Black Friday experiences are formed by visiting stores (in other towns) that open at 3:00 a.m. on Black Friday (or don\’t close at all the day before) and treat consumers like cattle. While it\’s true that some stores in Phillips offered Black Friday specials, what impressed me the most was the warm camaraderie I experienced at places like Bonnie\’s and the Ball Petroleum where I could hang out and write my blog. I\’m glad that you typically find Northern Merchandise a bustling place (I was there early Friday morning). And nothing against Northern Merchandise, by the way; the store must be doing something right to continue as a business year after year. I omitted mention of the free movies because the promotion was not specific to Black Friday (for instance, I know free movies were being offered Thanksgiving Day, too). That said, the free movies do demonstrate one of the nice things about Phillips, and I am glad you made the point. Thank you again for responding; I\’ll stop by to say hello next time I am in town!

  4. Krista says:

    Working for a CPA firm in Medford (about 45 min south of Phillips & where the closest Walmart is located), I just happened to catch your article regarding unemployment following the story regarding \”Making Unemployment Work for You\” through today\’s CPA Letter Daily and decided to follow my curiosity of your mention of a northern WI town during Black Friday. Interesting account and nice mention. Be sure to visit during the summer if you have not already!

    • ddeal says:

      Krista, thank you — we\’ve been to Medford many times especially when we take the more leisurely and scenic Route 13 drive. We have been fortunate enough to experience the north woods during all seasons including summer. I\’ve enjoyed hiking the many trails in the area (despite the wood tics!). I am growing to love the area during winter. We were in Phillips a few weeks ago, and we loved playing in the snow. Regarding Black Friday: I wonder how much business online retailers like Amazon enjoy in the north woods during the holiday season? Thanks again for your thoughts.

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