Making Manitowoc: Schroeder's Department Store in Two Rivers a family tradition
Schroeder's Department Store has been a cornerstone for the Two Rivers community since 1891. Josh Clark/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
TWO RIVERS - Walking into Schroeder’s Department Store on Washington Street, one immediately gets a sense of both the business’s history and its nod to modern times.
The two-story Two Rivers institution has the creaky floors, display cases and “departments” of stores from yore. That includes a large wooden sign likely from the 1950s or so, and store representatives who will approach customers who may have questions about size or fit.
But the small aroma-filled Red Bank Coffeehouse tucked in one corner and a display area filled with country decorations and pretty things for the holidays shows an eye toward engaging today’s shoppers.
And the family now leases out nearly half of the 18,000-square-foot store to four outside retailers — the Read Apple toy store, Intertwined Yarn Shop, Home Sweet Home Décor and the Quilt Shop of Two Rivers.
Much of this is the work of co-owners and sisters AJ Schroeder-Ashenbrenner and Theresa Kronforst, the latest generation of the Schroeder family to run the business, now more than a century old.
Memories of the store go far back for the sisters, whose father ran the store before his death a few years ago.
“My first memory was coming in after it was dark, 8 or 9 o’clock, with my dad, and helping him to run the credit card receipts by hand,” said Kronforst, the younger of the two sisters. A third sister shops at the store, but is not part of business. The sisters also helped clean the store, take out garbage and even learned to run credit cards during busy sidewalk sales.
But Kronforst moved away with plans to become a court reporter. She came back when her dad, John Schroeder, who had run the store for decades, died unexpectedly from cancer in 2008.
“I knew that AJ would be here and that she could do it,” Kronforst said. “But I was able to do it, and I wanted to do it. We made it through all the highs and lows. We came into it totally blind, I’d never taken a business class. It took us a good couple of years to know what we were doing. We’re just proud of where we are. It’s been nine years of ups and downs, crying and laughing, an emotional journey.”
Both Kronforst and Schroeder-Ashenbrenner point to Kronforst as the practical, cautious one, and her older sister as the dreamer.
“She will come in the morning with plans to move everything around, or try this or that,” Kronforst said. “I just need her to slow down a little bit, to look at things. I need a plan.”
The future is bright, Kronforst said. The coffee shop brings in a new generation, while customer service and knowledge keep shoppers coming back. In fact, even after she had her jacket on and was talking to reporters, she quickly headed to a customer who seemed in need of guidance with a “Can I help you, sir?” without a second thought.
And they’ve already moved shares of the business to their young kids, in hopes a fifth generation might take over someday.
Family history is important to the sisters, and they realize the name “Schroeder’s” is a well-known cornerstone of their community.
In fact, Schroeder-Ashenbrenner went deep into family lore, having recently completed a book about the store. The book, along with many old photos, recently was sent off to a publisher.
The store was opened in a nearby location in 1891 by Peter Schroeder, the girls’ great-great uncle. A year later, Joseph Schroeder, the girls’ great grandfather, took over. The store opened as a dry goods and general store in another location, moving to the current location at about the turn of the century.
Joseph died of typhoid fever in 1929, and it was passed on to his seven children.
John Schroeder became involved in the 1970s after spending some time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“He watched the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” Schroeder-Ashenbrenner said. “And something about George Bailey struck him. That he needed to come home to the community he grew up in and support the family business. He worked out a deal with his dad.”
John worked with his cousin Tim, and his father helped out until his death in 2014 at the age of 103. In the 1980s, the store still had a grocery department, but they began to see women’s and men’s ready-ware, and shoes, as well as children’s clothing, were the way to go.
Tim retired when the girls took over in 2008, although he stuck around to help them learn the business-side ropes. The sisters told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin last year the change came at a hard time, on the heels of the Great Recession and as competition from the internet and big-box stores were creeping in.
But it also came at a good time, in that the sisters brought in fresh ideas that may have been difficult for Tim Schoeder, who had helped their father out for a few decades.
The move to rent some of the extra space, for example, allows them to generate new revenue from space they no longer needed. It also allowed them to maintain the department store concept, but without managing as many departments and without the same staffing needs.
Today, the store employs about 17 people, down from a high of 50 or so in the early 1990s. And after almost a decade, the sisters agree everything is coming together.
“We’re going to keep on doing what we are doing,” Schroeder-Ashenbrenner said. “I have a huge responsibility to my employees and their families. We’re on a prominent corner of Two Rivers and, some people say, an anchor store. We take it all in stride. Previous generations made it through the Great Depression, and World War II, when people were rationed about what they could buy. Our focus is on fresh retail items you won’t find other places and great customer service.”
She’s thankful the transitions from generation to generation of Schroeders have gone well, and believes that will continue.
“A lot of businesses don’t transition well,” Schroeder-Ashenbrenner said. “We are a close family, we all get along, and we all know we will somehow work together to make it work.”
This story is part of the Making Manitowoc series of stories that highlight the people, places and things that make the Manitowoc region one of a kind. If you know of an interesting person, place or thing made in Manitowoc that you think could be featured, contact Patti Zarling at email@example.com, by phone at 920-686-2152 or on Twitter at @PGPattiZarling.
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