NORWICH – On Tuesday the owners of the McLaughlin’s Department Store in Norwich thanked the community and announced they would be permanently closing, likely sometime in early 2021.
The owners said they were lucky to have the opportunity to be a part of the local community.
“It was an emotional day, people would come in and be sad and I would be sad with them and cry. Please don’t be sad. We’ve been so happy here, we have happy memories in this building,” said Anna McLaughlin.
On Facebook the store put out a statement, “On behalf of the entire McLaughlin family and all of our employees we would like to thank each of you for your faithful support and loyalty.”
“It has truly been our pleasure to serve the people in Norwich and throughout Chenango County and beyond. We will cherish the many friendships that we have made in our 45 years of operations in downtown Norwich.”
“We will be forever grateful for the memories that you helped us create.”
Currently the store is owned by husband and wife, Scott and Anna McLaughlin. Mark McLaughlin, Scott’s brother, also played a major role in running the business over the years, primarily handling the store’s large shoe department and merchandise.
“A lot of people are asking what happened? People can blame it on COVID but really to us its been calm years and changes in the retail market,” said Scott.
“It’s just this accumulation of year, after year, after year, of: ‘What’s going to happen to retail next? What’s going to happen to retail next? It was just this slow progression of retail having a hard time,” said Anna. “And when COVID hit, it became this avalanche of change basically. What was going to happen to retail now became an out of control wave.”
The store closed for about three months between March and June. The couple thought about staying open as an essential business, but apart from the state’s lockdown there was a host of other challenges
“You could apply and plead your case, I guess. But we were also concerned about the safety of customers and of our employees. It’s hard to open the doors if only a couple people come in,” said Anna.
“Customers and staff were scared, at the time, we didn’t feel it was morally responsible to do that,” added Scott.
When they did open the store they followed all the guidelines, added new services and barriers to improve public health and social distancing.
“We still do curbside pick up or internet orders for people who are afraid to shop.” said Anna.
McLaughlin’s Department Store was established in Norwich 45 years ago in 1975. At the time the family had a number of other stores, including ones in Hamilton, Dolgeville, Skaneatles and New Berlin.
Spencer McLaughlin helped start the family business in 1955 in Waterville, working in partnership with his father, Clifford Sr., and his brother, Clifford Jr.
Scott’s father, Spencer, got involved in starting the family business after he survived a life-threatening illness as a teen.
“When my father was a senior in high school he was struck with polio,” said Scott.
A great athlete on his way to college, the illness left Spencer with physical challenges and he was unable to attend school by the time he recovered.
“He had a bright future in that but when he got polio he lost all his extremities. Everything came back except for his right arm,” said Scott.
In light of those events Scott said his grandfather decided he also wanted to help his son, Spencer, build a successful future, and so the the family went into business together.
The two, along with Spencer’s brother, then bought several movie theaters in the Waterville area. The business would expand to included several other family members and commercial retailers. They would eventually became known as McLaughlin’s Department Store.
Dedicated to his family-run business, Spencer would help run it until his retirement in 1997.
Scott said he knew he would play a serious part of the business in 1983, when his father took over sole control of the stores in Norwich and Skaneatles. His children, including Scott and Mark, were likely the next in line to carry on those family branches.
A number of other stores were started or run by other family members in central New York over the decades but the McLaughlin’s Department Store in Norwich is the last one still open today.
“I can’t remember when exactly but over the years, they slowly closed and family retired,” he said.
Scott said running a small business was a lifestyle more than a job. He said work was a second home. He said it wasn’t getting easier.
“That is the life of any retail merchant. We are not saying we work harder than any other independent merchant. It’s long hours and not something when you go home it’s out of your mind. Holidays are tough. My kids always say ‘Why are we open when other people are closed?’ That’s the time when people shop, that’s when people have the time to do it. So, that’s 35-plus years of working those things,” said Scott.
The couple thanked the City of Norwich, the Business Improvement District and the Norwich Merchant Association for all their years of support. Being a cornerstone business of the downtown, the couple was active in a number of local organizations over the years.
“It sounds like there are a million people in here during the Christmas season. It’s really families and people who haven’t seen one another in a long time. It might sound like there’s a big mob down there but it’s usually just a couple people reuniting,” said Scott. “We have a hometown department store atmosphere here.”
“So many people we have met, we are so fortunate to have so many great staff members, some of them have been here 20 years. We’ve had Thanksgiving with them,” said Anna. “We made this decision with them all in mind as well."
“What makes it fun also makes it the hardest decision because of the community. The community, you love to see them come in and visit with them, its not about the selling, it’s a ‘how can I help you today’ thing. And it’s about the staff, they are like family, we see them as much as family. These are the things that make it fun and also emotional,” said Anna.
“All these comments on Facebook makes you think. You don’t realize how many people were going to be effected,” Scott said.
On the site some people shared their connection to the store. The comments talked about the business being the first job for many youths. Others talked about a family member who had, or is working there. Others recalled memories like buying formal clothes for special occasions, like high school proms. Almost all of them said they were sad to see the store close.
“The neighbors, there as so many businesses here that are like minded. They care about the community, nice products, nice things, nice experiences. We have been fortunate. The Barnes brothers, Dave Shull across the street and even Jim and Pat next door, they all want what is best for the community. We live in a great place really,” said Scott.
“We know we are leaving a void in the downtown, one of the things that has made the decision so hard is the fear of leaving a void like this,” he said.