M. Crow contemplates liquidation

By Jennifer Hobbs for The Observer August 19, 2010 08:09 am

LOSTINE-One of the state’s oldest general stores is on the market, and if a buyer doesn’t step forward soon, it is at risk of closing down forever.

Family owned and operated continuously for the past 103 years, M. Crow and Co. has served not only as Lostine’s sole general store, but also as a meeting place, bus stop, museum and hub for the community.

Citing various factors, including age and a “lean season” that now stretches from November to May, the Crow family reluctantly made the decision last Labor Day that they would begin to work toward letting go of the store. The business went up for sale May 1.

“We didn’t originally have a timetable,” says Doug Crow, who runs the store with wife Melanie, sister Jan Bird and brother-in-law Keith Bird. “We had a goal to keep it going for 100 years, and we did that. We knew that after that time we’d need to look for a new family to take over the store. It’s time for new energy, new ideas and enthusiasm.”

The 6,000-square-foot historic building and 3-acre lot are listed with Real Estate Associates for $335,000 not including antiques. The store has also been listed on ebay.com, and received a bid there of $299,000. (That bid did not meet their reserve price.)

At this point, barring a viable offer, the Crows plan to stop stocking perishables and begin sell-down of inventory after Labor Day. The reaction from the community and the county at large has been sadness and dismay.

“It would be an enormous loss,” said Kendrick Moholt, who lives up the Lostine River canyon.

And it’s not just about driving an extra 10 miles for a gallon of milk or a needle, point out others. M. Crow’s functions as a primary social outlet for the community.

On almost any given day, there are people meeting in the morning over coffee in the back, teenagers buying snacks, children sitting on the bench outside, seniors catching up on the news and visitors appreciating the many relics from the past 100 years displayed throughout the store.

A visit to Crow’s offers a well-preserved window into the past, featuring old clothing, equipment, toys, posters and signs interspersed with an extensive assortment of more current merchandise. A butcher block and coffee grinders are among the original furnishings.

Various ideas for saving the store have been suggested, ranging from writing grants to forming a cooperative to establishing a bonded operational fund that could be used to absorb any excess store expenses, thereby creating more time and space for a buyer to step forward. The fear is that if the doors close on the business, they won’t open again. The hope is that the store could stay vibrant with sufficient community participation and support. But it is still a waiting game to see if someone will come up with the right combination of ideas and funding before the Crow family has to move forward.

“Everyone is sick at heart about the prospect of Crow’s closing,” says June Colony, who runs June’s Market across the road. She is one of a number of people who would like to “buy time” for the right people and/or ideas to emerge.

The Crow family emphasizes that they are willing to be flexible if serious proposals are made, but acknowledge that nothing formal has been presented yet.

“I hate to think of the store closing,” says Doug Crow. “I work at the same desk my grandfather did the books at. There’s the pride of ownership and the long familiarity, the knowing the space so well. It’s an old facility, but there’s that allure of carrying on the family tradition.”

He points out that his grandpa weathered the Great Depression, but that since that time Lostine has lost its resource-based economy, school and many jobs and families.

Purchased by Michael, S.P., and C.E. Crow in December 1906, M. Crow and Co. officially opened for business in 1907, and has been in the family ever since. The building itself has interesting origins, with the center section once having been a church and the back portion originally built as a grain storage warehouse. In the early 1900s, what is now an upstairs apartment housed both a doctor and a dentist.

Tradition runs deep for the family, as the store was an integral part of their childhoods as well as adult lives.

“As a young child some of my dearest memories revolve around the store, like roller skating the length of the store aisles on those old floors until we were asked to leave,” remembers Jan Bird.

She recounts watching her father slice meat at the butcher block and talk politics with her uncle, the oiling of the old wooden floors that used to happen on a Saturday as soon as the store closed, the cutting of “the store tree” and the opening of fragrant boxes of tangerines for Christmas, the summer job that paid for 3 1⁄2 years of college and time spent working with her parents in the store, which is now priceless to her. It is no wonder that family emotions are mixed as they contemplate letting go.

But while all of the Crows are reluctant to part with the tradition, they agree that it is time. They are unanimous in stating the best resolution for everyone would be to have the store continue, and are cautiously optimistic that someone may still step up.

“It just must be the time [for us] to be letting go,” says Claudia Moore, who ran the store with husband Wayne for 17 years and is the third Crow sibling involved in the decision-making process. “But I hope the store will continue to run under new ownership. And continue for years and years to come!”