Earlier this month, Jim Radel and Darrel Stauffer put a sign on the sidewalk outside their 332 N. Queen St. store that signaled the impending end of an era.
“After 38 years: Retirement Sale,” the sign read.
Their sale began early this month with regularly priced items marked down 40% and some things 70% off. And they’ll keep at it until everything is gone, or until their lease ends in January, whichever comes first.
For the owners of Radel & Stauffer, the final sale of cookware, home accessories, giftware and accessories concludes a successful retail career in a changing city.
“I think the city will remain vital. It’s just morphing into something a little different,” says Radel, noting that restaurants and bars are now more of a downtown draw at night than retail shops are during the day.
“I’m seeing more people on the street at night than I am during the day,” he says.
Yet, the 68-year-old Radel and the 61-year-old Stauffer said they’ve weathered recessions and changes in downtown retail by continually investing in their store while caring about what customers want.
Those principles have helped create a healthy business and a happy life.
“We’ve created a nice lifestyle. We’re secure,” Radel says.
In addition to being partners in business, Radel and Stauffer have been a couple since before the store opened, and they say they’re looking forward to some new freedoms in retirement.
“I was blessed with the perfect business partner,” Stauffer said.
“And same here,” Radel responded.
Radel & Stauffer in Lancaster grew out of Radel & Co., a similar store Radel operated in his hometown of Northumberland during the 1970s.
But when he visited Lancaster in 1979, Radel quickly became convinced this would be an ideal location for his store.
He soon rented an apartment in Lancaster as he scouted the area for possible store locations, eventually settling on a warehouse space at 118 N. Water St. that was the store’s home from 1982 until 2011.
By the time the store opened, Radel had met Stauffer, who became a partner at the store.
For the first 10 years, Stauffer’s role was to keep his job as a pharmacy technician and nursing house attendant at the former St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lancaster.
“We funded the business by me working (at the hospital) full time for about 10 years before I came onto the store,” Stauffer said.
From the beginning, the store primarily sold gift and tableware as well as offering interior design services.
“There was a critical mass of similar businesses. When anybody wanted anything of that nature, where would they go? Where there was a critical mass,” Radel said.
Radel said the store survived — and thrived — because of customers who needed gifts for all kinds of occasions.
“There was more of a social network in the city then, families that had been here for generations, so there was a need for gift items,” Radel said.
While they saw an impact from economic slowdowns, Radel and Stauffer say their business has always been good, even when major retailers left downtown, such as when The Bon-Ton closed its Penn Square store in 1995.
“Our business pretty much tripled when they left, because there was still that need ... and there was not anything fulfilling that need,” Radel said.
(The department store site later was redeveloped into the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square and Lancaster County Convention Center.)
Another redevelopment — this one changing the North Water Street building where Radel and Stauffer leased space from mostly warehousing to mostly apartments — forced them to move in 2011 to their current location on Queen Street.
With the move, the store downsized from 5,000 square feet to about 1,200 square feet.
Old fashioned retailers
While Radel and Stauffer have owned their store during a time of changing customer habits, they’ve maintained their traditional ways.
Radel & Stauffer isn’t open after 5 p.m. or on Sunday or Monday. Their last Facebook page post is from 2011. They also don’t do online sales.
“For the amount of money it takes to do an online store and maintain it, I didn’t see a profit margin for it,” said Radel, noting that handling returns through the mail would add to the hassle.
And while they are friendly with their customers, they haven’t tried to become good friends with them or to publicize the store by attending lots of social events.
“We always looked at ourselves as service people. We did not socialize with (customers). I think that is very important, to know your place in business,” Radel said.
Being good friends with customers can create the temptation to give them a discount, which Stauffer calls a “sticky wicket” to avoid.
Instead, the focus is on making sure their merchandise is free from blemishes, attractively displayed and appealing to customers with different budgets.
“There is a handle for every cup,” Radel said, noting that while the average person won’t spend $300 on a fruit bowl,“there is a group of people that will.”
And as they’ve built a reputation as the home of high-quality gifts, they have kept their own operation “mean and lean” by rarely having employees.
They also were slow to buy fancy furnishings and shelves, saying their money was better spent through buying more and better merchandise, even if it isn’t always their own style.
“I sell things I don’t care for,” Radel said. “They have to be well made and designed well, but not (necessarily) anything I’d want to live with.”
As they end their operation, the owners say they never really considered trying to get someone to buy the business.
“Our name has always been on the door. I don’t want to sell my name,” Radel said.
Instead, they’re hoping to wind down the business with the integrity and customer service that has been their hallmark, while also thinking about what life will be like without it.
“On a clear blue sky day, we can just pick up and go somewhere instead of being tied to the counter,” Stauffer said.