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Cancer battle pushes sale of iconic West Duluth store

Joel Russell stands outside Central Sales, a surplus store his family has owned for more than 30 years.

An iconic and ruggedly unique surplus store in the heart of West Duluth has been put up for sale as its longtime owner prepares to fight a serious health issue.

Central Sales owner Joel Russell said last week he plans to sell the store at 314 N. Central Ave. along with its three levels of floor-to-ceiling merchandise. The building and its parking lot were listed June 22 for $285,000, with store inventory negotiated separately.

“I just put it up for sale and we’ll see what happens,” said Russell. ”It’s tough. It’s multiple reasons. Part of it is that I have cancer. That’s a big part of it. I don’t know if I can keep running it as years come on. Right now (the cancer) is manageable but it may not always stay that way.”

Central Sales was established by Norm Kline, who used the building as storage until opening to customers in 1962. Russell said his father, Jim, a store regular, bought the business in the early 1980s.

“I started working here when I was in sixth grade,” he said. “Over the years it kept getting busier. It was a good business to go on, and when (dad) was ready to retire it worked out for me.”

Russell, a 1988 Esko High School graduate, has owned the business for 16 years.

The Central Sales building was constructed in 1914 and still has its original hardwood floors and tin ceiling.

Central Sales features a mind-boggling amount of surplus goods, used clothing, sporting goods, car parts, tools, hardware, collectibles and art work. It has become known as “the handyman’s candy land.”

Russell would like to see new owners continue sales operations but the surplus industry has seen big changes in the past 15 years.

“The places we used to get a lot of surplus from just aren’t even there anymore,” he said. “There really isn’t any small businesses going out of business because they’re all gone.”

Big box retailers like Menards and Northern Tool & Equipment and on-line giants like Amazon have also hurt small hardware stores like Central Sales.

“But I would say that the younger generation is not the kind of guys that come in and do work on their cars and buy stuff to fix things anymore,” he said. “They would rather throw it away and just buy another one.”

The 8,700-square-foot Central Sales building was constructed in 1914 and still has its tin ceilings and hardwood floors. It served as a grocery store and furniture store before becoming storage and eventually morphing into the unique retail experience it is today.

West Duluth business leaders say the commercial district around Central and Grand avenues has seen dramatic changes, especially in the past two decades. What used to be a major retail hub has shifted to a small but growing arts, entertainment and hospitality district.

Joel Russell helps a customer at Central Sales. Russell said a cancer battle is forcing him to sell his business.

“It think Beaners was a little start of that,” said AdVise Marketing consultant and Spirit Valley Days Coordinator Ivan Hohnstadt of the West Duluth Business Club. “Coffee shops can bring in the creative types, people who see things a little differently. Obviously, some of the properties were a little neglected and underutilized and people came in who saw an opportunity.”

Beaner’s Central, a coffee shop featuring live music, was established in 1999 after many small retail shops had closed and abandoned the area. The past decade has seen businesses like Zenith Bookstore, Midwest Catering, Dungeon’s End game store and the West Theater restoration project take over the block.

Olafson Genereau real estate agent Jim Aird has sold property in West Duluth for almost four decades. He said the West Duluth commercial occupancy rates have been increasing recently as a younger, more mobile and computer-friendly generation moves into the neighborhood.

“I don’t think we have a lot of empty buildings, there’s not a lot of vacancies out there,” he said. “But when Kmart pulls out, what’s going to happen? That’s a lot of square feet to fill.”

Aird said Central Sales was one of the oldest retail operations in West Duluth. He said he would miss the store if it closes.

“It’s one of those places that if you don’t know what you want, walk through and you’ll find it,” he said. “If you can’t find the part there that you need you’ll find something else that you can use. I don’t know what will go in there.”

1 Comment

Lee Erkkila Sr.

about 1 year ago

Sorry Joel, I didn't know. Get well, buddy. Maybe I'll buy your store.

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