Great Northern Trading Company to close doors

An antique wall unit that will be auctioned off when the store closes.

By Beth Altena

Barb Stein, owner of one of Rockford’s most well-known and beloved stores, Great Northern Trading Company. Barb is closing the store by early this spring and will retire.

Barb Stein has more knowledge of the history of retail Rockford than probably any other merchant in town, having opened the doors to Great Northern Trading Company in 1977. The store is located in the former carriage house of a trio of properties that were once a pioneer-era homestead of farmhouse (The Hemp Shop), barn (the Barn Mall where the Welcome Center is now) and the carriage house, 10 S. Squires Street.

GNTC began as snippet of its current size of 900 square feet in the 1800s structure, now over 3,000 square feet total of retail space. If all goes according to plan, in late March, early April everything left of the inventory will be auctioned and some pretty amazing antique fixtures will be as well.

One cabinet, the full length of an inner wall, is beautiful aged oak and includes the ladder that allows access to the upper storage of the ceiling-high piece. Stein said the antique was originally in the old Page Hardware in Grand Rapids. “The other half is in the public museum in Gaslight Village,” she noted.

Barb said she has “shed a lot of tears already” about the decision “It’s like selling your child.” She started the store when she was just 32 over four decades ago. “By the time we close our doors we will have completed 43 years.” The store opened in April, 1977, although she and her husband John had been fixing up the building throughout the year before. The building is currently for sale, a truly unique property with original axe-hued beams. The bathroom is a former horse stall with the original sliding door.

Stein said when she opened, the barn that accompanied the carriage house was still there, between the farmhouse and the carriage house. “I couldn’t see the road from here,” she stated. That barn mall was a massive, three-story building that house Baskets in the Belfry in the upper level once upon a time. It was structurally suspect around then, and a metal cable stretched from one interior wall to the opposite to keep the building from literally splitting in two.

A news clipping of when Barb Stein opened the business in 1977.

The barn mall was torn down years ago, opening up the view from GNTC to downtown Rockford. From her office space in the upper level and through her participation in city committees and projects, she has witnessed the metamorphasis of Rockford from the 1970s to today. She serves on the Downtown Development Authority (which she started with a goal of improving downtown Rockford) and currently is also on the hotel committee for the future boutique hotel on Main Street.

Stein once approached the city about making improvements to Squire Street, and it was suggested that she set an example to neighbors by making attractive improvements. The trend caught on, and Squires Street Square saw many improvements, from ugly streetlamps and wooden or no sidewalks to the heart of Rockford visitors see today—award-winning in charm, character and appeal.

Stein also serves on the Michigan Retail Association board and is past president of that organization. She said the retail profession, like Great Northern itself, has changed and re-invented with changing times to stay successful.

Her shop started out selling antiques and reproductions. Later, as country became so popular across the United States, the inventory altered to suit those tastes. After that lodge and cabin décor took over as a popular trend, and now farmhouse rustic is a top selling style.

Barb Stein and one of her employees who has worked there the longest, Juana Dennis, 21 years at GNTC. “I have been blessed with wonderful employees,” Stein said.

Walk through the store and you can see it populated with loons, dogs, moose, bears, birds, hats and pajamas, throws, puzzels, morels, Michigan memorabilia, signs, frames, trays, pillows, Petosky stones, stars, wall décor, planters, vases, signs and more. She said most of the items she sells come from trade shows in Las Vegas and Atlanta, the rest from vendors that come in to show their wares.

She’ll miss those trade show trips, but she and John love to travel and will be able to do more of that in retirement. “We’ve been to almost all U.S. states except Hawaii, and that’s on our list,” she said.

Her husband sort of got her into her retail career. He was working here for Mike Farmer and she remembers her first visit to Rockford—a lunch in the Old Mill about the time Arnie’s bought it. The main floor dining are did not yet exist, so most of the seating was upstairs. “I saw those poor servers going up and down those steps and felt terrible for them,” she recalled. Later Arnie’s built the main floor dining area that now exists.

Many other changes have happened in Rockford since those days, and Stein has the receipts in the form of a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and front pages from years

A photo of Arnie’s dating back to 1977 when Stein opened Great Northern. See how the current entrance and current main floor seating area didn’t exist.

gone by. The yellowed pages show the incredible turnout in 1981 when the Budweiser Clydesdales came to town. She was there in the street before them that day, trying to clear the crowd out of the horses way. Double truck ad specials are covered with offerings from retail shops long gone: Peace Pipes, The General Store, Two Eagle Trading Post, Munchies, Pink Poppy, R & N Prospectors Rock Shop, Things Americana, Sears Coon, The Candle Shop, Weavers Shop and Yarn Company, The Little Studio, Ebenstein’s Variety Store.

Great Northern was in those spreads and in other articles and clippings. Barb notes that Rockford Flower Shop was there back then, and the Register changed from that name to The Rockford Squire (because of the location on Squires Street). She said retail has changed over the decades, just like Rockford has. Rockford has changed “totally, totally for the better.” While retailing has become harder, she thinks.

“Now it is more of an experience. You can’t just have great inventory, you have to offer an experience.” She said in-store events, author signings, in-store demos, speakers, and other events bring people into shops. “They create a need for what you sell,” she said. “You have a client based list to communicate, they come to the store, are exposed to what you have and they want to take it home. The days of just having a wonderful selection are slowing down.” That idea runs across retail types and she gave the example of different shops that use that formula of an experience-based visit, the cheese shop, clothing stores, souvenirs, all use experience as part of retail success nowadays.

Barb said she is not yet to the point where she is excited about retiring. Her customers are like family and she is quick to note she couldn’t have made it all this time without wonderful customers and employees. Juana Dennis has been with her 21 years. “I’ve been blessed with wonderful employees,” she said.

The store starts off immediately with thirty percent off everything. Visit quickly as there is no guarantee how long the current, and last inventory will remain. Great Northern closing will be the end of something wonderful in downtown Rockford, but Stein chooses to see it as a new opportunity.

She chose to close, not sell, as a decision to be true to the business. “No matter what happens, people would come in here and say, ‘It’s not the same. They used to do it this way or that way. I’m not doing something that someone else can’t.” She had a funny story about how Great Northern Trading Company, a business and passion that has held her interest and attention for 43 years.

She had been working full time in Grand Rapids. “My husband John wanted me to do something that would allow me to be home a little more, so he thought it would be nice if I had a shop. After the first couple of year, he said, “Wow, that really backfired.”

Barb and John Stein, have a wonderful retirement and many thanks for so much love and work for the Rockford community.