by Britt Aamodt
Before Fashion Bug, Target or online shopping, the Elk River destination for women’s wear was Town & Country. In the 1950s, the boutique moved into the downtown and remained a Main Street fixture for more than 30 years.
The fashion passion behind the store was Doris Anderson, who in 1958 was working at the Bank of Elk River when another Doris, Doris Clothier, asked if the teller would like to buy her Town & Country store.
Anderson was a customer and loved clothes, but run a business?
A motivating event in her decision occurred on May 23, 1958, when a bank robber put a .45-caliber handgun to Anderson’s head. He told her: “Don’t talk. Don’t look around.”
“Well, I knew him,” Anderson said. “He’d done some work on the safety deposit boxes at the bank. But he was so nervous, he didn’t recognize me.”
Anderson wasn’t hurt, and the robber was caught. But the teller thought now might be a good time to change professions.
For a long time, the Twin Cities were the only option for clothes shopping; “unless you went to the Federated Store, but that was a dime store,” Anderson said.
“Monday nights, when we got done at the bank, we’d catch the Greyhound and go to Dayton’s” in Minneapolis, she remembered. “We’d shop for a couple hours and then take the last bus home.”
One of her first jobs as Town & Country’s owner was to head to market and buy stock, which she did – “a week after I bought the place.” She bowed her head at the memory. “And I knew nothing about it.”
But she quickly figured out how to work with wholesalers and how to buy for her customers. Her clientele wanted quality and trendiness.
In the ‘60s, dress lengths were short. By the ‘70s, Anderson was buying flowing skirts and elaborately patterned fabrics.
Nancy Gongoll used to bring her son with her to the store. While she browsed, he would hide in the racks and play peek-a-boo. It wasn’t long before Gongoll was employed at the store, helping customers pick out their new look.
Customers came from all over.
“I’d be at Ridgedale,” said Gongoll, “and I’d pass a couple women who knew they knew me from somewhere but couldn’t remember.”
She would name Town & Country and the connection would click.
Once, Anderson filled a helium balloons with coupons for a free outfit and let them go. The only person to call was an Illinois farmer. He’d found a balloon in his field, and he had a wife who wouldn’t mind a free set of clothes. The couple drove their coupon up to Minnesota.
Town & Country made its biggest splash with its fashion shows, which Anderson organized as fundraisers. Gongoll and other local women modeled for the shows.
“Oh, people really dressed up, hat and gloves,” Gongoll said.
“I think the shows are what people liked best. I ordered special things or else the clothes came off the racks at my store. Women liked them because they could see themselves in those clothes. We had all sizes, 8, 10, 12 up to 20,” Anderson said.
Because the store had a homey feel and later even moved into an old house, customers felt welcome to sit and visit, Anderson said. They lingered by the fireplace or watched Anderson and her employees finish a quilt at the big round table.
Customers went there in search of that something special.
Gongoll remembered a customer who bought a sequined dress.
“It didn’t even fit her. But she just wanted something beautiful to look at,” Gongoll said.
By the ‘90s, more retailers had made inroads into Elk River. And after more than 30 years, Anderson was eager to move on. She sold Town & Country and started in real estate. Still, the store remains a significant chapter her life.
“We served a purpose in town,” she said. “I spent my life here and I wanted to do something for the town (through the fashion fundraisers). And we sure had fun.”