BICKNELL — Most Main Street, mom-and-pop-style shops have permanently shuttered their doors in small towns across America, leaving downtowns looking more like ghost towns.
But some long-time Bicknell business owners want people to know they are still here and ready to serve, offering a personal touch that can’t be rivaled by an Amazon delivery drone.
On Indiana 67 sits Paul’s Tavern and Family Restaurant, a place that’s been serving up a warm welcome and delicious food for 60 years.
Walk in this time of year and patrons will find collection buckets for Toys for Tots on the bar and fliers for the upcoming charity auction to raise even more funds for the organization that provides gifts for underprivileged children.
The bar and restaurant was founded by Paul J. Memering in 1959. He purchased the old tavern building at 1102 E. 11th St. with a bank loan at a time when people thought opening a business on the highway instead of downtown was crazy.
Memering had multiple jobs before going into business; he served in the U.S. Army in Korea and worked in a nearby coal mine in his early years.
Patrons who take time to walk through the dining room can see photos and a folded flag display of the founder and former owner.
His son, also named Paul, has been running the business for decades now, but he still uses his dad’s recipes and philosophy about not cutting corners on quality food and service.
“I may be biased, but I think we have some of the best food around,” Memering said.
And the regular customers in the tavern would agree.
People come from far and wide to eat his mammoth-sized breaded tenderloin sandwiches, meat-lovers pizzas or fried catfish.
“I’ve even sent cases of tenderloins as far away as Florida and California,” he said.
Like so many small business owners these days, Memering has no real idea what the future holds, but he's choosing to enjoy the present. And he's grateful for all the people who have made owning a small business in a little Hoosier town part of his family's life for six decades.
“I couldn’t do this without my employees and customers,” Memering said. FAMILY AFFAIR
Sitting at the desk of her flooring business, surrounded by photos of family and longtime customers, Tonya Miller, owner of Pieper’s Carpet, 113 Main St., reflects on what the city's downtown used to be.
“I’ve been here 40 of the 50 years we’ve been in business,” she said, “and there used to be all kinds of stores to choose from here.
“But downtowns and mom-and-pop shops are a thing of the past. It’s sad.”
Miller’s parents, Leroy and Rachel Pieper, began the flooring business 50 years ago in the garage of their home. Miller can’t help but laugh as she recalls her father thinking that her mother would enjoy running a carpet business as a way to pass the time.
But Rachel Pieper did enjoy it — and was quite good at it, too. Soon, Pieper’s outgrew the little garage and moved into a proper building downtown. They expanded as other businesses closed.
Miller, who was named the 2019 Bicknell Heritage Parade & Festival Distinguished Woman of the Year, says the business is still very much “family driven,” noting her 89-year-old father, the 2019 Bicknell Heritage Parade & Festival Distinguished Man of the Year, still comes into the store on a regular basis.
Pieper’s can offer customers a personal touch larger stores or online outlets cannot, Miller says.
“It’s not about making a quick sale or meeting a quota. We don’t have quotas,” she said, laughing.
DOING IT BEST
Just two blocks up the street from Pieper’s is Mackey’s Do it Best for Less Hardware and Grocery. Owner Myron Mackey has called the building at 321 N. Main St. home for more than 40 years.
Mackey has been both a paramedic and a business owner in Bicknell, beginning first with the hardware store in 1979.
Though his interest was first in hardware, when the neighboring grocery was closing in the mid-1990s, Mackey decided to expand.
“Honestly, at first I bought the grocery because I wanted the parking lot,” he said with a laugh.
Though he had ulterior motives, it was fitting that Mackey went into the grocery business; it was in his blood.
“My grandfather, Ralph, and later my uncle, Morris, used to have a grocery about a half block down the road,” he said. “So me buying the building helped put the Mackey name back on a grocery store.”
For Mackey, there are a couple of significant challenges faced by his small, business these days.
For one, “People don’t think about brick-and-mortar stores anymore,” he said.
In addition to online shopping leaching away at some of his business, Mackey said that it’s getting harder for stores like his to find suppliers who will deliver products for reasonable prices.
“Some of them won’t even come to Bicknell unless you order a whole semi-load of products,” he said, adding that it’s a primary reason it’s difficult for small stores to compete with the lower pricing of larger retailers.
Despite the distinct challenges, Mackey likes to reflect on the good things about being a local businessman.
“The people,” he says, are the best part of the job.