MILTON-FREEWATER -- Pam Wildman wasn't surprised that shoppers balked a few years ago when some items at the Dollar Store were marked over a buck. Especially in a community with an eye for bargains and a shrinking selection of retailers.
But Wildman, manager of the Milton-Freewater store, said tags this week advertising inventory at less than $1 are an even worse sign of the times.
A 10-percent-off-sale that began last weekend is the start of a liquidation at the store, which will be shut down in the next 60 days.
Milton-Freewater's Dollar Store is scheduled for closure as parent company Liquidation Outlet Inc. goes out of business. Despite long swirling rumors of the store's closure -- likely fueled by inventory and price changes in the store's more than seven years of operation -- the announcement came as a surprise to Wildman and her staff of six employees. They had counted on the company being sold rather than closed down. Owners Gary and Arlene Woodring reportedly filed for bankruptcy protection more than a month ago.
"They went a different way," an emotional Wildman said.
The store's signature yellow signs proclaiming: "Yes! Yes! Yes! I'm only $1" are no longer correct. Everything from the pre-softened boat wax to door stops is 90 cents -- with the exception, of course, of the items that start higher than $1. On Tuesday employees were starting to bring out the leftover holiday inventory.
Milton-Freewater resident Chandi Nelson was among those wandering the aisles. There to pick up ice-cube trays for a friend, she also wanted to see if the rumors were finally true.
"I'd heard it was closing," she explained.
Affirmation of the rumor was disappointing but not a huge surprise. Nelson said she's already become accustomed to traveling north of the state line to Walla Walla for many of her shopping needs.
The closure of the Dollar Store leaves Milton-Freewater residents with fewer retail choices for their general needs. Rite Aid, Ace Hardware, Safeway and Pendleton Grain Growers are among the remaining retailers, as are boutique operations.
The community is not the only one on the verge of losing a discount destination for pennywise purchasers, Wildman said. Milton-Freewater's store is one of 37 across Washington and Oregon slated for closure.
Wildman suspects the impact in other communities may not be as devastating, though. Milton-Freewater has lost an increasing number of retailers -- as well as employers -- in recent years. The city's population of senior citizens and low-income residents have come to rely on the store for its affordability and selection, she said.
The 18,000-square-foot building at the corner of Columbia and South Main streets was one of Liquidation Outlet's largest locations when it opened its first Oregon store in 2002. Once home to Safeway and Shucks Auto Parts the cavernous space held room for more inventory than the average 12,000-square-foot Dollar Store.
The aisles were lined with everything from tools and kitchen appliances to party decorations and toiletries. The store was the first dollar store to open in the Walla Walla Valley and came with an added bonus to discount devotees: no sales tax.
But Wildman said a series of changes a few years ago began to annoy some customers. For one thing: the higher-priced items made their way into the store and occupied about 20 to 25 percent of the selection. Also some of the more popular items, including greeting cards, paper plates, batteries and toys, disappeared completely. By the time the store began carrying them again, customers were already unnerved.
Not all the changes were bad. In a process to begin accepting food stamps, the store introduced a produce section. Though the Milton-Freewater operation never did meet all the requirements for the food stamp program, the produce sales grew to make up about 12 to 14 percent of the business, Wildman said.
Even so, the lack of consistency with inventory over the years prompted talk in the community. Rumors began swirling of the store's demise.
"Especially over the last year," Wildman lamented. "The last six months in particular have been really difficult on the staff."
Fed up with the rumors and questions, Wildman and her staff finally posted a sign on the window declaring the store would not be closing. Two weeks later, she got the call telling her an Illinois company will manage the liquidation.
What will happen with the building she doesn't know. The owner is also Illinois-based, she said. Whether something will land in the store's place any time soon is also unknown.
"I just feel really bad for our town," she said.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.