After a year-long renovation project by the Salem Construction Trades class and private contractors, Fleming’s Variety Store on Fourth Street is expected to reopen as a non-profit foundation retail store, possibly next summer.
New owner Lisa Durbin Hester of the Dragonfly Wings Foundation has hired Construction Trades to do much of work with an eye toward donating any proceeds from the store, once it reopens, to local teachers and education programs. The foundation is a 501c3 non-profit.
The renovation project, undertaken by the class and instructor A.J. Tinker, will involve nearly all aspects of construction, including plumbing, electric, drywall, flooring, ceilings, lighting, roofing and painting.
Any profits will go into the Dragonfly Wings Foundation, then be redistributed for education, Hester said. Cleanup of the store for renovation got underway in recent weeks.
“Say you’re a teacher and you volunteer here in the summer, you will get money or products towards your classroom,” Hester said. “We want to carry some of the things that people go to Springfield and St. Louis to get” in hopes of garnering community support to buy them locally.
She also plans to restore the soda fountain, a fixture in the 1940s. All of the original displays and cabinetry from the original store at the turn of the 20th century are downstairs. Max Edwards, a classmate of Hester’s from SHS, has agreed to restore all of the period furniture.
“The fountain will be a project for the high school FBLA program,” she said. “The goal is for that class, those students, to run the fountain as a real business, a real business model they can actually learn from.”
There are also plans to open the rear section of the store, previously used for storage, as a community space for local meetings and events.
“We might have somebody there teaching needlepoint or knitting,” she said. “There will be sofas and chairs, a place to come and sit and have fellowship with other people.”
Tinker said his students will do some of the work in the front section of the store, which also includes taking down pegboards and signage, and providing egress to the rear room, where restrooms are also planned. The floor will likely require professional asbestos abatement, he said.
“There’s a lot to do down in the basement,” he said. “There’s no floor structure, no concrete or wood floor, just the original dirt floor. “We’re going to end up doing some kind of floor down there, but that’s not really decided yet. The door that goes out back is pretty well rotted out, so we’re going to restructure that.”
Hester grew up in Salem, where her father was a grocer for many years.
“The town gave my family our whole life practically,” she said. “They supported my family and I have a very strong emotional connection to this town.”
Now she and her husband, Wes Hester, want to give something back to the community.
“We’ve seen this work in other small towns,” she said. “We have visited many, many rural towns where foundation stores have literally brought their small towns back. Some of them are towns of 1,000 or 2,000 people.”
While Walmart stores take business away from downtowns, they also provide needed jobs, she said.
“But it doesn’t mean our downtown has to just perish,” she said. “We’ve seen whole towns, where on both sides of the streets are either business people who are back in business for a profit or a myriad of foundation stores that are operating and giving a lot of money back to the community.”
She doesn’t know if the store will succeed, “but we have to start somewhere,” she said. “This is a grassroots start.”
She estimated that the average teacher spends $1,500 a year out of pocket for classroom supplies and extra things students need. “And nobody gives them any money for it,” she said.
Hester called it ambitious to predict a summer 2020 opening. She stressed that the foundation is paying Construction Trades to do much of the work.
“This is not free,” she said. But she believes trades are important for schools to teach and wants the class to have a major project this year.
She wasn’t really planning to buy the store, but former owner Rob Benowitz is a classmate of hers and she made an offer after seeing it listed on Facebook.
“Fleming’s is the last store,” she said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone. My husband said, ‘Go for it.’ It’s all about giving back.”