After 46 years as an anchor store in downtown Belleville, Ben’s will close its doors
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
After running Ben’s in downtown Belleville since 1976, John Conkright is ready to play more golf, cruise through the Panama Canal, see the mountains of Alaska, visit with his family and retire from daily retail operations.
His daughter and business partner, Beth Wamble, is ready to retire and travel, too.
The two have decided to close Ben’s and sell the real estate their store occupies off East Main and South High streets.
The liquidation sale begins Sunday with all merchandise marked down 10% to 70%. Returns on purchases made before Sunday need to be completed by Dec. 31 and gift cards will be honored as long as the store is open.
Ben’s opened in 1976 as a Ben Franklin. It changed to Ben’s Crafts and Floral after the Ben Franklin chain shut down and later became known as just Ben’s after they expanded their product lines and services to include gifts, toys, home decor and women’s clothing.
Conkright, who will soon turn 83, said the father-daughter team has run smoothly for decades.
“The only argument we had is, ‘Who’s going to be out of the store first?” he said with a laugh. They joked that one can go out the East Main side and the other through the South High exit.
While they are ready to retire, they said the decision to close the store has been a difficult news to deliver their longtime employees.
“That was hard,” said Wamble, who worked as a CPA before joining the family-owned store 33 years ago. “Our employees got very emotional.”
Conkright said Ben’s stayed in business for so long because, “We give better customer service than anybody in the area.”
Employees will greet customers and then call to another section of the store to let the other employees know what a customer needs and have it ready for them, he said.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “We have a very excellent relationship with our customers. I have so many people come up and thank me for being in business here and doing it for so long.”
Conkright said most of the store’s employees are full-time staffers and that he and Wamble will do what they can to help them find new jobs.
Real estate listing
Barber Murphy of Shiloh is listing the property. The entire complex of Ben’s buildings can be had for $1.45 million, but Conkright and Wamble are willing to sell sections of it as well.
The entire property has about 57,000 square feet of space on multiple levels, with about 26,000 square feet of street-level retail space. It has an elbow shape with frontage space on both East Main and on South High streets with the Ben’s site surrounding the businesses at the southeast corner of East Main and South High, including Sugar High Bakery & Cafe.
Matt Barriger, a Barber Murphy broker associate handling the Ben’s listing, lauded the downtown Belleville real estate market which includes shops, bars, restaurants, lofts and offices.
“It’s very, very vibrant right now,” he said. “It’s just awesome down there.”
As far as Ben’s, the East Main addresses listed for sale are 108, 110, 112, 116 and 120. The site also includes 12 S. High St. Barriger is not sure if one buyer will want the entire complex.
Separately, the sites are listed as 12 S. High and 108 and 110 E. Main for $675,000; 116 and 120 E. Main for $495,000; and 112 E. Main for $375,000.
There is a city parking lot next to the rear of the Ben’s site.
“It’s a luxury to have it that close and that amount of parking,” Barriger said.
There also is 157 feet of street frontage on East Main Street that is “turn-key, ready to go” as for as retail, Barriger said.
There is potential for lofts, apartments and office space on the second and third floors, he said. A bar and restaurant developer may be interested in some of the space.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Barriger said. “I think having that parking is the ultimate kicker on this.”
The building at 112 E. Main St. has a freight elevator, which would be a selling point for someone interested in the upper floors, he said.
Favorite memories at Ben's
Conkright opened the Ben Franklin store in Belleville in 1976 after a career in retail with the W.T. Grant Co.
When he managed the W.T. Grant store in East St. Louis, Conkright said it was the No. 2 store in the nationwide chain. But as that chain closed, Conkright and his W.T. Grant colleagues looked for new opportunities with the Ben Franklin chain.
Conkright said he liked the retail scene on East Main Street in Belleville and jumped at the chance to open the Ben Franklin store. The space previously was a Sears, Roebuck & Co. store and Small’s clothing store for men and boys.
Decades after Conkright dropped the Ben Franklin name, he said customers still say they are going to the “Ben Franklin.”
One of busiest periods for the store came about in the 1990s when Beanie Babies were all the rage. Collectors flooded into Ben’s to get the latest toy creatures stuffed with plastic pellets.
“We were the first store in metro St. Louis to go after Beanie Babies,” Conkright said. “People would follow the UPS trucks to see when they came in here.”
“That’s the most phenomenal,” event in the store’s history, he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Never will again. We had lines from the door on High Street all the way around to the door on Main Street.”
If customers didn’t wait in line to get a ticket, they wouldn’t be allowed to buy Beanie Babies.
“People laugh,” Conkright said. “They call my house the house that Beanie built.”