Pap’s Sport Shop celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. What’s unusual about this sporting goods retail store in downtown Little Falls is that it has been operated by three generations of the same family during the entirety of its existence. That constancy is becoming exceedingly rare for a business in this day and age.
Pap’s arose out of the embers of what was described as “… the worst fire in the city’s history,” the Kiewel Block fire in Little Falls on April 27, 1929. (LFDT, April 27, 1929) The Kiewel Block was located on the northwest corner of the intersection of Broadway and First Street and housed a number of businesses, including Pap’s Auto Supply Store, owned by Anthony J. “Tony” Pappenfus. In fact, the fire was discovered by Tony’s employee, Ted Gierok, who noted that the smoke drifting in from the basement door was greater than the normal amount kicked out by the coal furnace. “In less than three hours the entire block was but a mass of smouldering ruins,” causing an estimated $250,000 to $300,000 worth of damage. (LF Herald, May 3, 1929 & LFDT, April 27, 1929)
On April 30, 1929, when the embers of the fire could hardly be expected to have cooled completely, the newspaper announced that Tony had made arrangements to move his business into the Vertin building, across Broadway and a little to the west of the former Kiewel Block. The move was to take place around May 5 and a new entrance would be added to the Vertin building to accommodate the store. (LFDT, April 30, 1929) The Little Falls Herald reported that, “Mr. Pappenfus will for the time being at least, handle only sporting goods and radios and he will be ready for business shortly.” (LF Herald, May 3, 1929) The exact date of the store’s opening in 1929 is unknown.
Tony never did return to the auto parts business. His granddaughter, Paulette Pappenfus, doesn’t exactly know why, but sporting goods were an area of interest for him and he was already carrying them in his Auto Supply Store. The hunting ammunition he had in stock, along with some dynamite, exploded in the fire. The 1930 local telephone directory shows the business listed as “Pap’s Sport Goods & Radio.” From 1931 through 1936, the business was listed as “Pap’s Sport Goods & Confectionery.”
Within the next few years, other changes were in store for the business. The confections were dropped, but Tony and his wife Susan opened a lunch counter and bar and relocated their businesses further west on Broadway. The sporting goods store, with lunch counter in the back, occupied what is now the Whiskey River Saloon. The bar, called the Blue Mirror Lounge, was located in what is currently Pap’s Sport Shop. There was a doorway between the businesses. Susan was primarily in charge of the lunch counter.
Between the three businesses, the Pappenfus family spent long days. They worked in the bar until the wee hours of the morning, cleaning the floors and spittoons, and then had to be up in time to operate the lunch counter, where Susan offered a Blue Plate Special for lunch. Tony and Susan recruited their sons Robert and Gene to assist and the boys ate many a meal at the lunch counter. Gene remembers having to clean the bar prior to class during his years in high school.
The Blue Mirror Lounge was a financial success, more so than the sporting goods store, according to Paulette, but by 1946, Tony and Susan had sold the bar. When Paulette asked why they chose to sell the more lucrative business, they said they had gotten “tired of drunks after midnight.” The year was a pivotal one in other ways. When the bar was sold to Matt Raster, who had been a bartender there, he and the Pappenfuses exchanged buildings, so the Blue Mirror Lounge became what is now Pap’s Sport Shop and the Sport Shop became the Brass Rail bar. The year also saw a generational shift, with Gene Pappenfus taking over the Little Falls store. In 1946 or 1947, his brother Robert began operating the St. Cloud location that Tony had opened. After a number of minor name changes over the years, 1946 marked the beginning of the “Pap’s Sport Shop” name, which has remained a constant since that time.
In addition, Gene, who had just returned from service in World War II, got married to Margaret LaFond in 1946. The couple had three children, Tom in 1948, Paulette in 1950, and Mary in 1953. Like their father, these children grew up with the sporting goods store.
Of the three, it was Paulette who exhibited the most interest in the business, although it wasn’t her intention to make it a career. When she was in high school, she worked there during a summer, primarily on Saturdays. Following high school, she received a two-year degree in nursing, specializing in developmental disabilities, and then did work on a temporary teaching certificate. After finishing a grant-funded position with Community Services in Little Falls, she was in the process of applying for another job when her father became ill and was hospitalized. This was in the mid-1970s. Paulette started working in the store just to help out and never left.
In the early 1980s, Gene decided he wanted to retire. He invited Tom and Paulette to his home to announce the news. He was passing the store on to Tom. Upon hearing this, Paulette, who’d been at the store for nine years, said, “What about me?” As it wasn’t the norm to pass the family business on to a daughter, Gene said, “You’ll make a good salary working for your brother.” With that, Paulette threatened to quit. Tom had only worked in the store for a brief time, so Gene didn’t want Paulette to leave. Because he couldn’t find a solution to this dilemma, he remained with the business for another couple of years.
Eventually, Tom and Paulette formed a partnership to operate the business, which allowed Gene to retire (although he stayed on as bookkeeper until mid-2009). The partnership lasted from about July 1984 to the end of the year, with Tom telling Paulette that they were too good of friends to be partners. They dissolved their partnership without telling their parents, who were away on vacation. Gene was still convinced that Paulette would not make it in this male-dominated business and would have insisted on returning home if he knew.
Paulette became sole owner of Pap’s Sport Shop in January 1985. She’s been running it ever since and, as a female owner, is still considered in the minority for the sporting goods industry. As such, she’s had her share of incidents where people have doubted her knowledge. One time, a man called and asked, “Is there a guy there? I have a question.” Paulette replied, “Nope. Both are gone right now. Can I help you?” He then said, “Do you know anything?” Paulette laughed in response. Another time, a sales rep came in the door and walked right past Paulette in order to speak to her long-time employee, Bert Lapos. Her pluck and good humor allow her to take these sorts of things in stride.
Although she may be in the minority as an owner, during her years with the store, she has witnessed the growing acceptance of women in the field of sports. On a personal level, in the twenty-five years she has been a firearm safety instructor, she has watched the number of girls in her class rise from one per class to thirty-to-forty percent of the class. On a national level, she noted that Nike didn’t use to carry female sporting apparel. After a woman was seated on the company’s board of directors, female apparel was added and now makes up forty percent of Nike’s sales. With the mixture of familial constancy and generational change, Pap’s Sport Shop has evolved over its eight decades to meet the needs of an ever-changing population of sports enthusiasts.
By Mary Warner
This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter, 2009, Vol. 22, No. 2.