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A Hallmark moment

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
As Carolyn's Hallmark Shop goes out of business, manager Deb Schmidt reflects on the friends she's made and the joys she had over 22 years in what was once a bustling mall. After struggling to negotiate affordable rent in the mall's new development and being unable to find a suitable location elsewhere, the store will close on Monday.

As Deb Schmidt reflected on her final days as manager of the closing Carolyn’s Hallmark Shop, she saw the memories of times long gone pass like phantoms through the empty halls of Crossroads Mall.

The 90-year-old man she called Mr. Magoo who tossed her gold dollar coins. The mall walkers whose names she never learned, opting for greetings like “Hey, sunshine!” or “What are you up to, pumpkin?”

The children on benches eating ice cream from Orange Julius down yonder. The lively kiosks that filled the hallways and the people who would wrap gifts around Christmas for a dollar or two.

“I remember when it was just non-stop people all over,” said Schmidt, the Hallmark manager for 22 years, as she scrolled through her memory by pointing to each empty store front encompassing her. “It was just thriving out here. When a store would close back then, you really didn’t think anything of it, because it was rare.”

As a mall directory at the front desk with about 50 stores dwindled, more and more shoppers said “I’ll look online.”

But as the gate came down at 5 p.m. and some of her shoppers said goodbye in the final weekend before their last day in business, the closure of her own store felt different. As the Hallmark Shop grew unrecognizable with bare walls and a smattering of ornaments and accessories left to snap up, she knew it was those relationships — big and small — that she would miss the most.

“That’s going to be the hardest part about leaving here,” she said as her voice broke, “the friendships I’ve made all these years.”

For this manager, customers weren’t a transaction. They were people to be embraced, and some of the best memories were made inside her doors.

A lifelong Fort Dodger, Schmidt had longed to work with the Hallmark brand after waitressing, making glasses at Optical Lab and working at Quality Plus.

“I felt like I wasn’t using my abilities. I felt like I was in a manufacturing situation where I just looked at the clock,” she said. “It’s the feeling that comes with the Hallmark brand. Everything’s a moment.”

She was hired on the spot after the manager in 1998 recognized her maiden name. Schmidt’s grandfather had previously helped take care of that manager’s in-laws. But what Schmidt invested in others with her 22 years was what really made her time at the store count.

Every day, Schmidt saw the biggest hearts in Fort Dodge as she helped the ones others may not have seen much. She helped the illiterate select birthday cards for loved ones and those with disabilities come through the store’s closer back entrance.

She watched the life cycle of locals in real time as toddlers wheeled in by their mothers in strollers would graduate from high school, or as widowers carried on their wives’ traditions of shopping for the children’s gifts there.

“There was a man who came in after his wife had passed,” Schmidt said. “She made him promise he’d continue to get the kids and grandkids ornaments.”

So he dug through their old receipts from the previous year and brought some in for Schmidt to figure out the next ornaments in the series to get for the kids. Days later, he saw the store would be closing.

“He came in and said, ‘what am I going to do?'” Schmidt said, tearing up. “It broke my heart because I don’t know what he’s going to do.”

Many husbands came in to shop with their ailing wives, having never seen the store before, only to continue the tradition of shopping there after their wives passed.

“Everybody came in here for a feeling. That’s really why they came in here,” said Schmidt.

They were shoppers with personalized needs that came for an experience no customer can get through their smartphone or computer.

“This was about making people feel good. It was about making people happy,” she said. “It was about a child going home and making grandma feel special. That’s what it was.”

The store’s dedication, under her management, proved that maintaining humanity with the customer experience was not mutually exclusive to being astute in business. Over the years, the store’s loyal customers kept Carolyn’s in business up to the very end — even through the advent of online shopping and the pandemic –only to be put out by an unsustainable rent hike.

“If someone came in here and they were a little short, we’d dig through our pockets, we’d dig through our purses, we’d have a stash in the drawer,” Schmidt said. “We’d do whatever it took to turn it up.”

And while they didn’t make a billion dollars, they were able to hold their own. Even when it didn’t look like their building would bounce back after anchor store Younker’s closure, they turned a profit.

The mall’s new development with Crossroads Plaza Development LLC, was at first welcome news to the store hoping to get out of the doldrums the empty mall had become. But after eight months of negotiations from March to November, it became clear that the end of Fort Dodge’s Hallmark moment was near.

“It finally felt like we were going to have a happy ending,” Schmidt said. “But unfortunately, that’s not how it turned out.”

While Carolyn’s Hallmark Shop expected an increase in rent, they couldn’t afford to double their rent to the amount the group wanted, or sign a 10-year lease – nearly double the average length of leases the store had dealt with in the past. The new development’s terms would also force the shop to pay for the cost of building their own restroom and have an erratic schedule of shifting locations throughout development, Schmidt said.

As she waved goodbye to her last customers walking out the door and said farewell to granddaughters bringing in their grandmother for the last time, she didn’t feel defeated — she felt let down. She wished leaders making decisions on the new development had considered its impact to businesses like theirs.

“It’s hard to wrap my head around it — are we really closing up, because of way high rent?” she said.

Schmidt used to dream of her granddaughters working at her stomping grounds in the mall they grew up calling “Meemaw’s work.” They had their own name tags in the store’s back office.

“It’s heartbreaking to see (a store) go, but anymore, it just seems like it’s normal,” said Schmidt. “When people left here, they felt special and important. And it’s all going out for greed.”

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