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‘Doing a little’ for literacy

Inside Johnson’s downtown shop is a free library

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Pam Johnson, owner of The Big Picture consignment shop, sits inside her downtown store. Johnson said it’s more important than ever shop local as businesses have been severely impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mantra Pam Johnson lives by is, “if we all do a little, we can do a lot.”

Johnson is the owner of The Big Picture, a consignment shop located in the heart of downtown Fort Dodge at 704 Central Ave.

That saying is the inspiration for the name of her business, which she opened three years ago in Webster City. When that building was found to be structurally unsound, she moved the business to Fort Dodge in the spring 2018.

The Big Picture sells a variety of clothing, home decor, furniture and accessories.

Some of the items are things that are being sold on consignment. Some have been donated. A number are produced by local people who are artists or have an artistic flare.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
A free library is offered at The Big Picture. Owner Pam Johnson believes literacy is most important in the effort to improve quality of life in communities.

“It’s a an eclectic mix of high-quality home decor and clothing,” Johnson said. “It’s like a consignment boutique. I take a lot of pride in how I present the merchandise. I try to keep it fresh.”

In terms of popularity, Johnson said, “anything that has a farm trend to it.”

“People repurpose a lot of those things,” she said. “I sell a lot of clothes, too. I’m very picky about my clothes. People like one of a kind things. Even though something might have come from Hobby Lobby, there’s not 10 of them in a row.”

Johnson said she completely flips the store four times year to reflect each season.

“I rearrange a lot because there is so much to see,” she said.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Pam Johnson, owner of The Big Picture, looks over the clothing rack at her store. Johnson said she’s selective on the apparel she chooses to display and sell.

But Johnson has also used her platform as a business owner to encourage literacy.

She offers a free children’s library in her shop and provides discounts to educators.

Teachers and librarians get 10% off all merchandise all the time.

Johnson, a 1974 Fort Dodge Senior High graduate, also donates 60% from the sale of donated items to the Fort Dodge Community Schools Foundation.

Johnson has had a lifelong love of reading that she said was inspired by an English literature teacher she had in junior high.

“She was amazing,” Johnson said. “I think if we can get our kids reading and keep our kids reading, that’s our best way to make positive changes. An educated community is just in a better position than an illiterate one. Seventh and eighth grade is when we lose them.”

Seeing the children’s excitement when they receive a free book is a highlight.

“They are so excited,” she said. “It’s great.”

Johnson has always considered herself a big city girl. Upon graduating from Fort Dodge, she went on to live in places like Kansas City, Chicago and eventually Minneapolis for 20 years.

She holds degrees from the University of Iowa and Texas Tech University. Johnson earned a master’s degree in education in 1980.

She worked at Loyola University Chicago for two years. While there she completed a master’s degree in industrial relations at Loyola. That led her to a career in human resources and consulting — mainly spent in Kansas City and most recently Minneapolis.

Johnson is a breast cancer survivor. About 14 years ago, she was diagnosed in the same year that her father died.

It was around that time, she said she was ready to leave the corporate world.

Johnson returned to the area about five years ago for family reasons.

Briefly, in late 2016 and the first part of 2017, Johnson was regional director of the Fort Dodge-based North Central Iowa Small Business Development Center. The decision to open The Big Picture grew out of that experience.

“I’ve always had a desire to have my own business,” she said.

Johnson likes the downtown atmosphere.

“Part of my brand is really engaging with customers when they come in,” she said. “I get a lot of business from the courthouse. First timers. I’m still kind of a well kept secret. And now especially with no meters downtown, people can come down and not worry about getting a ticket.”

And while Johnson isn’t surprised about the challenges of operating a business, she said the pandemic has hit small businesses hard.

“Because I was on the other side of it for so long and was helping people start businesses, I think my eyes were pretty wide open,” she said. “It’s a labor of love. I don’t make much money and you can’t be in a store like this for the money, so not many huge surprises. It’s a lot of work. People need to know it’s a lot of work. If you are your own boss, you work your tail off. Any business owner would tell you that. Now more than ever we need to support small businesses. To go backward five to six months is really hard.”

She continues her shop because it’s something she enjoys.

“The part I like most about it is finding the stuff and displaying it in a fun way,” Johnson said. “And I love the people too. I love my customers.”

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