Chesterton Tribune

Ben Franklin closes doors after 63 years in business

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By KEVIN NEVERS

A 63-year-old Chesterton tradition came to an end Saturday when the Ben Franklin at 219 Broadway shut its doors.

Ken Baur, who owns and operates the store with his wife Pat, told the Chesterton Tribune today that the decision to close has nothing to do with any downturn in the craft market--or even with any hiccup in the Duneland economy--but rather everything to do with the loss four years ago of his special relationship with the Ben Franklin franchise when that franchise went out of business.

Indeed, although the establishment of a Hobby Lobby in Merrillville and one in Michigan City did cut into some of Baur's trade, Baur conceded, he said that he had always considered that competition a "temporary setback" and noted that shortly after the store went into the craft line exclusively sales tripled.

Instead, Baur said, the store was simply unable to run profitably after Promotions Unlimited of Racine, Wis., bought the Ben Franklin name but failed to offer--and never sought to replicate--the advantageous relationship which Ben Franklin previously had had with its franchisees across the country. "They really never understood how these stores operated," he said.

Chief among the benefits for the old franchisees was the warehouse which the Ben Franklin franchise ran in Seymour, Ind., and which Baur said it stocked with the largest number of miscellaneous items of any franchise in the country. That warehouse permitted Baur to keep a low inventory in his store but still to obtain needed items quickly and inexpensively. With the loss of that warehouse, however, Baur said that he was forced to maintain a larger inventory and so--given Indiana's inventory tax--to assume a larger tax liability.

But in others ways too the loss of the franchise hurt Baur. In the old days, he said, the Ben Franklin franchise twice annually held a national convention for franchisees at which some 6,000 vendors would make their products available at "tremendous deals." In addition, the franchise fielded a marketing team which built ads for franchisees at excellent prices as well as developed and coordinated such promotions as the popular bag sale, which Baur's store was the first to offer on the day after Thanksgiving.

Not only did Baur lose the warehouse with the sale of the Ben Franklin names to Promotions Unlimited, he lost the aggressiveness of the franchise, and in four years no new programs or promotions were ever developed. In short, Baur said, under the new regime and as an independent he simply never had the buying power or the flexibility made possible by the strength of the franchise. "Being a franchisee has a lot of benefit. It just wasn't possible to do this alone. But I didn't want to admit that."

Although Baur said he has felt for some time that he would have to close the store, the final decision was made quickly and kept confidential until he and his wife had had time to inform their 17 full-time and part-time employees. The final straw was this season's extraordinarily high heating costs, he added.

"It's been a very emotional time for us," Baur said, and emphasized "how much we appreciated being part of the community for so long."

Baur's grandfather originally established the store in 1938 and ran it until 1961, when his father took over the business. Baur himself began working in the store in 1983 and in 1990 he and Pat assumed the reins.

Baur--who also operates The Frame Shop Inc. in Crown Point--said that he intends to stay in Chesterton. Baur owns the building and said that he hopes to find a tenant for it quickly.

The store will re-open at 8 a.m. Wednesday for an undetermined period as a consultant organizes a closeout sale.