By Leigh Sharps
PLYMOUTH—On a cold fall day last year, a ‘groundbreaking’ was held in front of the former Richelson’s Department Store building on the corner of North Main and Bridge Streets, the gateway to Plymouth.
It was a somewhat bittersweet affair, as the grassroots business, founded in Ashland, then moved to Plymouth, said farewell to its long history here.
The building has now been razed, and construction of a three-story new Business Center at Plymouth, collaboration between the Grafton County Economic Council (GCEDC) and PSU, will soon be completed is now well underway. The family was presented with the old structure’s date stone as a memento of Louis Richelson’s triumph as an immigrant from Minsk, Russia in 1901 and started a New England enterprise. The building was purchased by the state Department of Transportation back in 2003 to make way for the bridge and roundabout realignment and had sat empty until the Enterprise Center was conceived.
At the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Enterprise Center in Plymouth, GCEDC Executive Director Mark Scarano praised the Richelsons and their struggle to establish a business amidst hard times.
Scarano said, “Louis Richelson exemplified the best of the American dream in that he left his adopted country better off, than the one he inherited, when he first came to our country.”
“Through grit and determination, Louis Richelson was one of countless immigrants that made America the greatest country in the world,” he added. “We were fortunate that he decided to bring his indomitable entrepreneurial spirit to central New Hampshire. That spirit will live on with a new generation of entrepreneurs within the Enterprise Center at Plymouth.”
Grandson Paul Richelson said of the new venture, “It is a bittersweet feeling of seeing the last physical representation of the Richelson’s Department Store disappear; however, knowing that the entrepreneurial spirit that Louis Richelson started in 1929 will, in a way, live on in the new businesses on this same location.”
Grandson Jeff Richelson added, “It is a very appropriate tribute to the historic landmark business that was once a pillar in the community.”
The Richelsons’ story is one well worth relating, one to be remembered and is as old as the first European settlers coming to America.
Louis Richelson (1887-1972) emigrated from Minsk, Russia to escape the oppressive living conditions of the Russian Czar (emperor) at the age of 16, and settled in New York to become a tailor. Sometime after 1911, he met his wife, Freda Alterman (1898-1969).
Her family had also emigrated from Russia eight years after Louis and they settled in Brooklyn when she was just 13. She, also, was trained as a tailor, but in those days women were called seamstresses. In 1916 the two married and in 1917 their son, Julius, was born.
In 1921, son Irwin was born. The burgeoning family prompted Louis and Freda to seek a cleaner, safer environment for their children outside of the big city. The family moved to Ashland, as Freda’s brother, Kalman ‘Kelly’ Alterman, had previously opened, and then operated the popular Kelly’s Army and Navy Store in nearby Laconia.
Louis and Freda first established their business in 1922 on the first floor of a two-story house on Main Street in Ashland, with their living quarters on the second floor. In the early days, it was common for small business owners to live “over the store.” Louis went out daily with a horse and wagon, selling work clothes and boots to farmers and loggers at their homes and places of business. He spent long days traversing roads (mostly all dirt roads in those days) through towns such as Ashland, Plymouth, Rumney, Campton, Bristol and Meredith. While Louis went out peddling his wares, Freda operated the small retail store on the first floor.
The move to Plymouth
After several years of servicing the nearby towns, Louis, the entrepreneur, could foresee the much greater business potential of Plymouth. He knew the benefits of the town, which had one of Grafton County’s few courthouses, and he could see future business opportunities with the consistent growth and expansion of Plymouth Normal School, now known as Plymouth State University. Louis and Freda decided to open a second store in 1929 in Plymouth and purchased the 149 Main St. property. While starting the Plymouth business, Louis and Freda continued to live in the house over their Ashland shop. Their third child, Selma, was born in 1931.
Louis and Freda opened a third store in Franklin after one of Freda’s brothers moved from New York to the Plymouth area. The brother operated it for a couple of years before deciding that he was not happy living in rural New Hampshire, and they closed the store. Louis and Freda eventually moved their family in 1941 to 3 Wentworth St. in Plymouth, where they lived the rest of their lives.
In 1936, an attached horse shed at the rear of the Plymouth store burned down, and instead of replacing that rental part of the store building, Richelson decided to build a new store on the site from the ground up. Finished in 1937, during the Great Depression, the building was modest and expandable. It was first divided in two, and a restaurant occupied the ground floor and Richelson’s was in the south half of the structure. Richelson’s grandchildren recall the building was designed to accommodate a second story for the business’ future expansion, but it was later decided to convert the large basement into retail space instead. In 1940, Louis and Freda closed their Ashland store and consolidated the business into their Plymouth location.
After serving in WWII, Julius and Irwin returned and began to take over the business. Through the 1950’s, Richelson’s Department Store continued to service the clothing and footwear needs of men, women and children, each with their own departments. At that time, New Hampshire ski areas began developing and attracting out of state visitors to the growing sport. As entrepreneurs, the Richelsons saw another opportunity to expand their business by serving the growing needs of these customers. They initially focused on ski wear, such as Profile Parkas and eventually added hardware, including skis, boots, poles etc.
First full service northeast ski shop
In 1958, the brothers decided to convert the basement space into one of the first full-service ski shops in the Northeast. That business thrived through the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. In 1970, Richelson’s Ski Shop sold the first pair of Olin Skis, from the Olin Corporation, in the United States and sold to a local business man.
With the passing of Freda Richelson in 1969 and Louis Richelson in 1972, Julius and Irwin were determined to continue their parents’ entrepreneurial spirit. The first complete remodeling of the main store took place in the summer of 1970. The brothers recognized the importance of planning for the future and keeping up with the times, especially in a “hip” college town. The Richelsons hired a retail store specialist, Kohn Display from Hartford, Conn. to transform the stodgy prewar look to a then-current state of the art retail store. The result was remarkable and the response was immediate. The look and feel of the new store was quite sophisticated for its time, and yet maintained the casual convenience of a small town business. The two twin pre-war entrances were replaced by one center entrance, and large front windows were installed in the length of the building facing Main Street. Split-wood shingles were placed on the façade, along with a double-wide wood-framed entry door. Inside, old-fashioned tin ceilings were covered with dropped ceilings and the floor covered with “Mod” 1970’s plaid carpeting. Finally, fashion-forward “slat-wall” was installed along with brand new floor fixtures.
In 1974, Julius and Irwin purchased the Sargent Block, a multi-tenanted building built in 1878 on the corner of Main Street and River Street (just to the south of Richelson’s property). It was demolished in 1962-63 to become an Arco gas station. With a nod to Louis and Freda’s original grassroots business, they converted it to an annex devoted to traditional working clothes, boots, gloves, etc. In addition, the acquisition provided 25 onsite parking spaces. This additional parking became a major asset for the main store as well, as it encouraged customers to shop in an area of scarce on-street parking. The annex and parking lot were an immediate success and continued until the property was eventually taken by eminent domain by the state.
In the late 1970’s, the third generation of Richelsons, grandsons Paul and Jeff, joined the expanding business. Both had helped out in the ski shop while in high school. Paul learned to tune skis and helped custom fit wax injected boots. As he recalled, “After college, I found myself back in the store and together with my cousin thought we’d show our parents how to run the business!”
Jeff added with pride, “All our hard work paid off in the ski shop by being recognized in Ski Magazine as one of the top 10 boot fitters in North America.”
Learning from Julius and Irwin’s experience, Paul and Jeff recognized the opportunity to bring added value to their ski customers by offering additional services in the ski shop. Some of these services included ski binding tune-ups, custom ski waxing, sharpening ski edges and making custom orthotics. Orthotics, in particular, could facilitate boot fittings and increase the skier’s comfort level for a much more enjoyable outing. Grandson Paul continues this part of the business at his office on Tenney Mtn. Highway in West Plymouth.
Unfortunately, due to the great recession of the early 1990’s, Richelson’s closed its doors in the summer of 1992 after 70 years in business, including 63 years in Plymouth. Irwin leased out various spaces in the two buildings to entrepreneurial retail businesses, including Melnick’s Shoes, True Colors Print and Design, Winnipesaukee Baygulls and several others and maintained the properties until 2003.
The state Department of Transportation bought the buildings in the summer of 2003 for the reconstruction of the bridge over the Pemigewasset River, and a roundabout at the Main Street intersection with Bridge Street. The former work center store was taken down in fairly short order, and the main building had stood empty for years. A truck accident in 2009 forced the state to remove a third of the corner of the building further compromising the historical integrity of the structure.
After having built a thriving business with ski boots, footwear and custom orthotics, Jeff and Paul went their separate ways when the store closed (1992) but they stayed in the area and built from their original client base. In late 1992, Jeff opened ‘Foot Focus’ in Plymouth and ‘The Boot Doctor’ in Lincoln. Both businesses closed within a few years when Jeff moved out of the area. In October of 1992, Paul opened ‘Richelson’s Feet First’ on the second floor of the Woodsville Guaranty Savings Bank (formerly Plymouth Travel). It is still in business and has grown to three locations with four to six employees over the years.
Paul recalled one of his fondest memories of the store: “At about age 10, I would organize thousands of hangers and boxes on Saturday mornings and after lunch I would proudly bring my 50 cent pay to the Plymouth Theater for a box of popcorn and a movie.”
Paul continued, “Louis always told us to serve the customers’ needs. My dad loved to tell the story of a young man who walked into the store one Saturday morning requesting a suit for a wedding. My dad struck up a conversation with the young man: ‘Who’s getting married?’ my dad asked. ‘I am, in a few hours’ was the young man’s reply. Well. Into high gear went my dad, and in a few hours’ time, this man had a new suit altered by our own seamstress with shoes and a tie my father even tied for him. Dad said he looked like a million bucks! And off he went to get married.”
Likewise, Jeff reminisced about his favorite memory: “Playing with all the PF Flyer Secret Decoder Rings left behind the counter by customers who purchased the sneakers!” Jeff brought to mind other ‘Louisisms’: “If the stock is not a mess you are not selling any. If you don’t take care of the customer someone else will. Always treat the customer fairly and with integrity and you will have a customer for life! And ‘Always provide value to your customer.’”
Thinking back on how Louis started the business, Paul said, “The hardships Louis went through to emigrate to the US from Minsk Russia and the strong work ethic that was passed down to his sons, and continuing to his grandchildren is an example of how a family business spanning three generations can have lasting effects not only in business relations but also in how families are raised.”
“It has instilled many business values that continue to be used daily,” concluded Jeff.
The Richelson family has expressed pride in the fact that Louis and Freda’s legacy of entrepreneurial spirit in Plymouth will continue to flourish with the new Enterprise Center at Plymouth. The new Center will serve the greater Plymouth/Central New Hampshire area, providing an opportunity to new and existing small businesses with leased space, mentoring, networking and other services crucial to the success of these businesses. Entrepreneurs have always been the backbone of American business success, and it doesn’t matter where in the world they come from. Louis and Freda knew it and so will the coming generations of business-people in Central New Hampshire.