What started out as a five dime store on Anoka’s East Main Street has withstood many tests of time and business.
Jenson’s, which now includes Jenson’s for Women, Jenson’s for Kids and I.Appeal, celebrates 75 years in business this month.
While it doesn’t look anything like the variety store it once was, the same family name and personal attention can be found at 112 East Main St.
Nearing the end of The Great Depression, Carl and Francis Jenson wanted a new start for their family and were looking at variety stores in Anoka and Elk River.
After they settled on buying the Anoka shop and the family moved up from Springfield in the fall of 1938.
Morris Jenson was 10 years old.
He can still remember the ride to Anoka with a farmer from his hometown, who sang a tune “Anoka, Anoka Anoka, Minnesota” all the way to the northern suburb. He arrived just in time for school to start.
It was a dream come true for a young boy.
“It was a store full of candy and fireworks, we had the biggest candy counter around,” said Morris, whose first job at the store was sweeping floors.
During those days, Jenson’s sold everything from crafts and school supplies, to housewares, fabric and even parakeets.
A year later the infamous tornado ripped through Anoka. While the store was not damaged it was a close call. Just blocks up the street the tornado hit the Anoka Armory. Morris remembers sitting on the front porch at their home on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Van Buren Street before it came through.
Around 1950, after serving his country and attending business college, Morris began the process of taking over the family business from his father.
Shortly after, Morris and Yvonne Skogman met at the store. Yvonne, who was living in St. Louis Park at the time, came into Jenson’s to get supplies for her new job as a lab and X-ray technician at Anoka’s Mork Clinic.
They married and continued to build a business together while raising six children.
Five of the six Jenson children own and operate the stores now – each with their own roles and responsibilities.
Tom handles the finances, Steve takes care of building and architecture, Mary is in I.Appeal (juniors), Cheryl in women’s and Theresa in kids.
“People always ask me how that works, to have the five of them working together,” said Yvonne. “I just tell them they all have very different personalities and that helps them get along.”
But you can’t just walk out the door and retire when it comes to handing over the reins of a family business.
“The kids were doing the work, but I was doing the worrying,” Morris Jenson said. He retired in 1984.
The list of changes in the lifetime of Jenson’s has been long.
There were certainly no $100 jeans on the racks in Morris Jenson’s day.
The demands are different, too. Retailers now keep much longer hours, open evenings and Sundays.
Yvonne recalls that Morris used to regularly bring salesmen home for lunch and their schedule allowed for family dinners together around the table, a luxury for many families these days.
Morris enjoyed the challenge and the variety of running the store.
It was hard work, particularly when he took care of everything himself, but he and Yvonne lived by the credo of “doing our best and let God do the rest.”
On this special anniversary year, Morris and Yvonne will also have the honor of being grand marshals of the Anoka Halloween Grand Day Parade Saturday, Oct. 26.
Morris Jenson singles out when Anoka opted to do away with charging for parking on Main Street as a big step forward for doing business.
“People would be shopping in here and come out and find a ticket on their car,” he said. While Anoka still manages parking, it does so with time limits rather than meters.
He bought adjacent property that he later resold to the city in order to create additional parking behind Jenson’s buildings.
“He always had good business sense about what should be done to create a better Anoka,” said daughter Theresa Jaeger.
During the 1970s, when clothing sales started to surpass the other many products carried in the variety store, Jenson’s transitioned the store to all clothing.
I.Appeal was added in the 1980s, allowing Jenson’s to feature the top fashion, shoe and denim trends in junior sizes.
There have been other changes over the years. When sewing clothes at home fell out of fashion, Jenson’s dropped fabric from its inventory.
Just a few years ago, most of Jenson’s men’s clientele were made up of local tradespeople.
As the recent recession hit, that level of business dropped, said Tom, leading the family to stop selling men’s clothes. But strong sales in women’s and kids have filled the gap, he said.
Today Jenson’s is a place shoppers go when they are looking for something different, when they don’t want to show up at the party, or at work, wearing the same outfit as someone else.
“Our selection is wide, instead of deep,” Tom said.
There are many unique items in the store, but not a seemingly endless supply in multiple sizes, typical of chain stores.
Pete Turok, executive director of the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce, appreciated the opportunity to have learned a few things from an established and successful businessman like Morris Jenson.
“It’s iconic,” Turok said of the downtown business. “To have that kind of history and legacy in this town is some rare air.”
Turok said the entire Jenson family has understood that what they do is more than just selling a product, but have had a hand in building a strong community and Main Street that has lead to better business.
“The stability for customers who know Jenson’s is there, they can come and get what they want, that brings people to town,” Turok said.
That also brings more customers into the newer stores you can now find downtown.
“There’s been a lot of competition, but we’re still on our two feet,” Morris said. Jenson’s has thrived in the shadow of malls like Northtown, nearby Riverdale and the explosion of online shopping.
They’ve done it with personal touches, like gift wrapping and carrying fashions you just don’t find at any big box store.
“We have some very, very loyal customers,” Yvonne said.
As buyers working directly with customers, Jenson’s is able to act quickly to keep up with the trends.
“To be successful you have to change with the times … and they have been able to do that,” Turok said. “I wish we had tons more businesses just like them.”
Mandy Moran Froemming is at [email protected]