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‘It’s the demise of retail society’: Mascoutah’s everything store bows out

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MASCOUTAH — In almost every town of a certain size, there is a store where you can buy almost anything. More and more, it’s a Walmart. But not here.

Here they have Sax’s, a 50-by-75-foot annex of a gas station convenience store that’s equal parts Radio Shack, Apple Store, Best Buy and Cabela’s, plus everything you need to repair a bike or a lawnmower. “You could get everything, local,” said longtime customer Doug Schuler, 73.

At least, you could have. On Saturday, Sax’s closed its doors. Co-owner Tom Sax is retiring, and twin brother Tony Sax isn’t far off. The gas station and convenience store will remain open. But after 48 years, they say they’ve taken the retail business about as far as it’ll go.

Stores like theirs have been dying off for years, along with their clientele. First it was big box stores like Walmarts and Targets. Now it’s kids these days, including theirs, buying most of their stuff off Amazon. They’ve survived by honing niches like cellphone repair and lawnmower service, offering rock-bottom prices on high-end products — and very long hours.

“We did not want our kids doing this,” said Tony Sax. “We work way too hard for what we earn.”

But they’ll be missed. As the final week reached its midpoint Wednesday afternoon, a slow parade of customers came in for a final browse. They called Sax’s a treasure, where they could find almost anything they needed, run into someone they knew and count the guy behind the counter as a friend.

“I’ve bought a lot of stuff here: batteries, bicycles, fishing stuff,” said Louis Sindel, a customer for more than 30 years. “I have no idea where I’m going to go.”

It all started with the Western Auto inside of a neighborhood market on Main Street. Dick and Margie Sax bought the place in 1974, thinking it would be good work for their two boys just graduating high school.

Tom and Tony split their time between the local community college, now called Southwestern Illinois College, and the store, where they learned to sell just about everything. Branches of Kansas City-based Western Auto belied the name, offering, among other things, Western Flyer bikes, televisions, furniture and guns in addition to car parts.

Sax’s eventually stopped selling firearms after a handful of robberies. “I don’t miss that,” Tom Sax said. But the wide selection became a permanent feature. In 1989, Sax’s added Radio Shack products to the mix, and sold its first batch of brick-style cellular phones.

Soon afterward, a woman drew a winning lottery ticket at the market, and the Saxes got to keep 1%, or $20,000. They gave employees a bonus, and built a lawnmower repair shop.

They always kept their eyes peeled for new ways to serve customers — a key to surviving as the new retail economy dawned. When the satellite TV kits came out and customers asked if there was someone who could do installations, Tony Sax told them he’d do it. When Western Auto went away at the turn of the century, Sax’s bought into the home appliance business. And as smartphones came to dominate sales, Tom Sax recognized another business in repairing them, hiring a string of high schoolers to help him. “You break it. We fix it,” he said. “New speakers, screens, batteries, charging ports — everything but the motherboard.”

And they spent hours setting up new phones and troubleshooting issues down the line, usually at no charge. One customer pulled up Wednesday unable to connect his phone to his car. Tom Sax went out and got it going, gratis. “They probably wouldn’t do that at the Verizon store,” he said.

Another survival tactic: They would not be undersold. Tom Sax would sell a $1,500 crossbow for $300 less than Cabela’s and an $800 dishwasher for $100 less than Lowe’s. Profit margins weren’t huge, but they were enough.

It’s not enough to pass on to the kids, though.

“Walk-in traffic’s nothing like it used to be, and our loyal customers are dying off,” said Tony Sax. “It’s the demise of retail society.”

And, just as Tony Sax hoped, the next generation has moved on. Tom has four kids: Not one of them is in retail. Tony’s son makes his living at a keyboard, reviewing software patent applications, working from home.

So it falls to the brothers to wind things down. They stopped working Sundays and cut off the lawn and garden business about a year ago. They’ve ceded the appliance business and the machine that issues hunting and fishing licenses to the Ace Hardware down the road.

Earlier this month, they started the closing sale, ratcheting up the discounts with each succeeding week. By Wednesday, everything was 50% off, and a lot of it was already gone.

But they still had a roll of the cable that Steve Hand, a retired federal employee, needed to set up the TV in his workshed. Mark Beer, a local dairy farmer, found the rolls of tape he needed. “They didn’t always have everything I needed,” Beer said, “but they had most of it.”

And when a customer asked for an 8-foot cable to plug into a VCR, Tom Sax found one, measured it out using the tiles on the floor, and rang it up. “Stop back,” he said, perhaps forgetting about the closing for a second.

Or maybe it was something else.

The store is closing, sure. And Tom Sax says he’s going to retire. But it’s not clear Mascoutah will let him. To ward off a panic, they’ve promised to keep repairing phones, when needed. Requests are already piling up.

“Once we close on Saturday, I’m going to Florida for three weeks,” he said.

“And then I’ll probably have 10,000 cellphones to work on.”

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