Jan and Jay Pattee have sold their beloved Ben’s Five and Dime business to Perry native Andrea Tunink. The sale became official Jan. 1 but has been an open secret for a few months.
The change in ownership turns the page on a 50-year chapter in Perry’s commercial history in which Jan and Jay — and Jan’s parents, Chick and Betty Schwarzkopf — played leading roles.
The roots of dime-store retailing in Perry reach to the early post-World War II period, when P. E. “Gene” Yates in 1947 opened Yates Variety Store at 1211 Second St. in downtown Perry, on the ground floor beneath the Elks club.
In February 1952, Yates moved his family to Ames to operate a motel on U.S. Highway 30, and Ray D. Johannsen and Winifred Johannsen bought Yates’ Perry business and changed its name to Ben Franklin.
The Johannsens had opened a Ben Franklin store in Denison in the mid-1930s and operated it for 18 years until the store was destroyed in a large fire in the town’s commercial district. They thought they would then try their luck as owners of the first Ben Franklin in Perry.
Meanwhile, Jan’s grandfather, Walt Soll, was the superintendent of schools in La Porte City, Iowa, and also a state-champion basketball coach, but he and his wife, Blanche Soll, found a more lucrative line in buying and fixing up buildings around Iowa and turning them into Ben Franklin stores, from Cherokee to Britt to Northwood to Belmond — to Adel.
Sam Walton of Walmart fame followed a similar trajectory, starting out running Ben Franklins. It was the golden age of American dime-store retailing.
Walt and Blanche Soll’s daughter, Betty Soll, was herself raised as a kind of Ben Franklin child, sometimes even temporarily living in the back of one of the stores, so fast was her father flipping them.
In 1952 Betty Soll met and married Philip “Chick” Schwarzkopf, a Koean War veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and the Schwarzkopfs soon bought the Adel Ben Franklin store in December 1954, when little Jan Schwarzkopf was a mere two weeks old. Jan had an older brother, Chuck, and she was soon followed by Jim, Jeff, Cheryl and Craig.
By 1968 Ray and Winifred Johannsen had been running the Perry Ben Franklin store for 16 years. They sold the store to Chick and Betty Schwarzkopf March 1, 1968, and by May 8, 1968, the Johannsens were both dead, succumbing to cancer within a week of one another. They lie at rest in Violet Hill Cemetery in Perry.
The Schwarzkopfs became pillars of Adel society. As Perry Daily Chief Editor John Moe put it in 1968, “Mr. Schwarzkopf is a member of the Adel City Council and has played an active part in Little League the past 12 years. They are den father and mother to Cub Scouts and Camp Fire Girls.”
Rather than try to divide their time between Adel and Perry, the Schwarzkopfs hired Harry and Betty Cooper of Knoxville to manage the Perry store starting in June 1968. The business thrived, and the Coopers helped supervise Ben Franklin’s move to its present location at 1221 Second St. in 1973, and they oversaw the expansion of the store in 1977.
The Coopers retired in 1979 — at least they thought they were retiring.
“They had gotten a new manager in 1979, and that person quit on my dad the day before Thanksgiving,” Jan Pattee said. “So Harry and Betty — there it was, thrown back in their lap.”
“And we were just out of college,” Jay Pattee said of Jan and himself, “and we thought, ‘Well, what the heck? Let’s try this for a little while.'”
That was 40 years ago.
“When I left for college, I said that I’d never work in a dime store again,” Jan said. “Ha! Never say never.”
Jan and Jay have officially managed the Perry store since 1980, following the postponed retirement of Harry and Betty Cooper. They bought the store in 1983 from Chick and Betty, who carried on at the Adel outlet until 2006, retiring after more than 50 years at the helm.
Jan and Jay bought the Panora Ben Franklin in 1998 and will continue to operate it, with an eye on a four-year plan for transitioning into full retirement.
“And we’ll still live upstairs,” Jay said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“We love Perry,” said Jan. “It’s where we grew up.”
Partings are hard after 50 or 60 years, but Jan and Jay said they feel like they have found a perfect fit with Andrea Tunink.
“Andrea breaches outside of the family finally,” said Jay, “but she did work for us when she was just a wee little high school girl, so it’s kind of like a continuance of sorts.”
“This was my first job in high school,” Andrea said. “There were a lot of reasons why I decided to move over and do this. It’s a really good opportunity, so I’m was very grateful to Jay and Jan for even considering me to do this.”
She knows retailers have seen some choppy waters in recent years, but she is very bullish on Perry.
“Living here all my life, I know communities go through waves, and every community goes through cycles,” she said. “We’re in a really good cycle now. It’s fun to be part of that. It’s nice to see things filling up. It’s good to see the wheels turning in the right direction and to see the momentum going forward.”
For now, Andrea has her eye on 2019 and on doing what she can to preserve the strong support Ben’s Five and Dime has built up in the Perry area over two generations.
“My goal for this first year is to get the stock back up, to get it full again,” she said. “I’m not going to lie. I’m a little bit nervous, but we’ll get there as long as the community still feels the same way and wants to support local. We’ll be here to help them find what they need.”
Helping Andrea to move things forward will be her indispensible 20-year Ben’s veteran Lori Mallicoat and Carol Peters in the crafts department. She will also have help from some eight or 10 part-time high school students and even from her own children, such as her 10-year-old son Aiden.
“Aiden is already asking me, ‘So in 10 or 20 years, I get the store, right?’ I told him, ‘We’ll see about that.'”