When you walk into Ben Franklin Crafts, you hardly think it is a mom-and-pop store.
The idea is even harder to imagine during the holidays, when the store is bustling with shoppers weaving through the various departments, guided by knowledgeable and dedicated employees. It’s also more organized, efficient and festive than most chain stores in the area. But 40 years ago it started with two brothers standing amidst some empty land, deciding if this location was where their retail endeavors would begin.
“I never paid much attention to numbers, but you can just as easily go broke here as you could anywhere else, but it’d be a great place to raise a family,” said Earl McGovern, the family patriarch and financial backer for his two sons’ then new store.
Craig McGovern has always taken his father’s words and wisdom to heart, applying them to his life and business over the decades. His brother and business partner Kirk moved to Washington just five years after Ben Franklin opened its doors, and Craig remained here to raise a family, becoming a stalwart of Grass Valley commerce. The store marks its 40th anniversary this year.
The McGovern brothers were raised in Anchorage, Alaska. Craig attended Arizona State and then returned to Alaska before finding himself in the Sierra Foothills. By then he was already married to his high school sweetheart, Andrea.
Over the years they raised three sons. Their eldest, Josh, is preparing to take the helm of the business when his father retires sometime in the next couple of years. It took Josh some time to fully embrace his future at Ben Franklin.
“I had no desire to be in Grass Valley, to be involved in the family business,” Josh said. “Then I went away to college and realized Grass Valley wasn’t a bad place to be.”
He started working part time as an office manager after college (though he logged numerous hours working in the store throughout his adolescence emptying trash cans and doing odd jobs). His role evolved into a full-time position as he took on the task of computerizing the entire store and its systems. Still not sold on the family business, Josh left in August 2006 to work for Citizens Bank. He returned, revived and ready to go, in 2011.
“It’s amazing to be back. I wish I had done it 10 years earlier. (During) my experience with Citizens, I got to see a lot of differences in how businesses were run. It just made me see how you can achieve the same goals many different ways. That’s what I was lacking originally.”
Josh can now be found at Ben Franklin just as often as his dad. His kids are also showing interest in the family business. His 13-year-old son is inquiring about a summer job, while his daughter, 11, is showing an affinity for the arts — often sampling the kids’ crafts. The two can often be found at open houses and special events handing out cookies.
While family plays an essential role in the roots and character of Grass Valley’s go-to craft store, McGovern’s ability to adapt and evolve over the years has made it, and him, a success as the Ben Franklin chain has dwindled. He was emphasizing crafts and leaving the variety store, five-and-dime model before corporate made that path official. He was also one of a handful of “aggressive, independent” storeowners who founded SPC, Sierra Pacific Crafts, an organization designed to maximize the success of its stores and vendor partners through cooperative strategies. Today the group has 230 member stores, filling more than 3 million feet of retail space and $450 million in annual sales.
“Dad always said, in this type of business, you ‘get out of it what you put into it.’” Craig said. “If you’re going to sit there and wait for everyone to come to you, it probably wasn’t going to happen, but if you’re willing to get out there and work hard, you can probably make it happen.”
With the holiday season essentially in full swing, Craig notes that Christmas is a year-round production. He’s already preparing to attend trade shows in January to purchase goods for the 2014 holiday season. Despite the time and effort, as well as the integral sales that Christmas brings, he has no intention of ever opening on Thanksgiving.
“I think it’s desperate, but it only took one (store) to do it. They’re afraid they’re going to miss out on their share. I don’t think on that large of scale,” Craig said. “I think it devalues family, that’s for sure. If for some reason I had to be open on Thanksgiving, I doubt I could staff my store. I can’t make people work. I just wouldn’t feel right about it.”
Katrina Paz is a freelance writer who lives in Grass Valley.