Bahle’s: the store that built Suttons Bay | Characteristics
145 years old
By Ross Boissoneau | December 18, 2021
* With its antique displays, hardwood floors, classic clothing lines and various reminders of the past, Bahle’s of Suttons Bay feels like it’s been here forever.
Just about. As Bahle’s nears its 150th birthday, it is interesting to observe how its rise, fall and subsequent rise parallels the development of the city itself.
When Lars “LE” Bahle opened the store in 1876, he was only six years old from leaving his native Norway for America. Reflecting the nature of the city, Bahle’s was the prototype general store that sold almost everything: clothing, dry goods, hardware, and other staples of pre-20th century life in an undeveloped wilderness. Supplies and goods often arrived by rail; the rails ran behind the store, bordering the storage barn which is still in use today. As the small village and its thriving farming community grew, so did LE’s business, so much so that the merchant had a schooner built to supply the store. As a favorite haunt for just about everything in town, Bahle’s also served as the town’s post office.
LE’s eldest son, Otto, bought it out in 1920, when Otto was 28. Otto’s son, Owen, was born the following year and, growing up, followed his father into the family business. By the time the fourth generation came of age, Suttons Bay was in the lean season. The area’s agricultural fortunes were dwindling and Suttons Bay had yet to become a thriving resort town like nearby Leland and Northport.
Still, this fourth generation – Owen and Leila’s children, Lois, Robert, Richard, Karl and Chris – enjoyed their home, with Lake Michigan in the front and the woods in the back. “To grow, [it] was idyllic, like going to camp, âsays Karl. But the city was not particularly prosperous or even attractive. âSuttons Bay was not interesting. It was a cherry processing town, and it was worn out.
Growing up, the Bahle children were not interested in staying. Not at first, anyway. But eventually, they all returned to their hometowns and became part of family operations.
Rich didn’t even bother to finish his engineering studies at the University of Michigan. âI realized how much I missed here, the place, the farm, the business, more than I wanted to finish my degree,â he says. He returned to the family farm and says he enjoyed the farm life. However, economic forces ultimately meant the end of this career. “I loved life, [but] close it. It was a big blow, but it had to happen.
At that time he moved into real estate, including selling a property that became a Tendercare skilled nursing facility, now Medilodge. Rich says Dad was not thrilled with the use of the property for the life of the elderly; he felt the last thing the town needed was more old people. But Rich acknowledged that healthcare would become more and more necessary as the area’s amenities became more attractive to retirees.
Lois, Karl and Chris have become integral to the operation of the store: Lois as the buyer, Karl up front and Chris taking care of the accounting and financial aspects. Over the years, the three have worked to ensure that the store evolves with the times – initially, not so much in style as in practicality. Lois says changes in agricultural technology had a significant impact on the store’s inventory: as mechanical harvesting replaced migrant workers, there were fewer calls for work clothes, and the store began to offer more resort clothing as Suttons Bay has become a vacation and second home destination. “We have changed the inventory for better quality [due to] the tourism industry, âshe said.
The Bay Theater became Robert’s baby, even though he hadn’t planned on directing it and wasn’t even in Suttons Bay to adopt it. “To my surprise, [Mom and Dad] called and said, âWe bought the theater. This is your chance to come home. [My dad] always said there are a lot of opportunities here. Mom and Dad made these opportunities.
âWhen I was running the theater I thought if I did this in five years it would be a miracle. Then at 15 [years in], it has become my career. After 30 years, I quit. After Robert retired, Rich’s son Erik (this is the fifth generation, for those who matter at home) took over. Today, it is managed as a non-profit association. Erik then moved on to manage another business, Bahle Farms Golf Course, which was sold earlier this year. Today, he takes care of the property management of the family business.
While things have changed and continue to do so, the store is still part of the fabric of Suttons Bay. It offers a variety of clothing for men and women, from outerwear to t-shirts, jeans to hats, sweaters to accessories and everything in between. After Lois Bahle retired six years ago, Stacy Sheren, a retail and visual products professional who owned and managed her own stores, came in as a buyer and is also in charge today. She was responsible for the design of the store makeover a few years ago. It’s been redesigned as the kind of place it could have been decades ago, and she appreciates when people tell her the store looks like it used to be – even if it doesn’t.
âWhat I’ve tried to do is marry retail and museum,â says Sheren. Like the former, it features high-end labels like Barbour, Dubarry of Ireland, Patagonia, and other high-end brands that many wouldn’t expect to find in a small town in northern Michigan. âThese are more luxury products. It is wants; no need.
The historical aspect is served by a number of signs, displays and artefacts. Some of the original post office facilities are on display at the rear of the store. Orchard ladders are used as displays. Old-fashioned recipes are also presented. âPeople like the story,â says Sheren.
While Sheren runs the store, the Bahles remain in the photo, albeit in the background most of the time. âNo family memberâ¦ is actively involved in the retail business [operation] day to day, âsays Karl.
What does the future hold? Change, that’s for sure, but other than that no one can say for sure. As shopping migrates to online options, they say presentation and customer service will become even more important. âThe emphasis is on customer service, creating an experience for consumers. There is so much competition on the Internet, but people are missing the entertainment factor of shopping, âsays Sheren.
âRetailing demands more of a theatrical aspect,â agrees Karl.
Without a doubt, there are plenty of them, from displays the public see to mannequins and button books in the attic, even the old printing press in the basement where the family used to print their own signs and flyers. Part museum, part high-end fashion and all experiential, Bahle’s seems ready to spend its 150th anniversary and well beyond.
* Photo above: Oldest known image of Bahle’s merchant store, taken circa 1885. Photo courtesy of Karl Bahle.