“Were you helped?” Herschel Davidner concernedly asks a customer leaving his downtown Prince Albert store -- Davidner’s Clothing and Western Wear.
After hearing the customer answer in the affirmative, Davidner wishes him a good day with a warm tone and smile on his face as genuine as his leather cowboy boots.
“I would contribute the fact that we’re still in business to the fact that we’ve done our best to deal with the public in as courteous and careful a manner as possible,” he later explains.
“I haven’t been here for very long at all,” he adds with a coy grin.
Pausing for a few seconds to let the irony of his statement sink in as he leans forward on his cane with eyebrows raised in anticipation of the punch line, he adds with a smile, “I’ve been here for 66 or 67 years.”
His father, Samuel, opened the store in about 1933, with Herschel learning the basics of running a small independent business since he was an eight-year-old kid who was keen on helping his father with the odd chore.
After joining the army and later spending a couple years in university, Herschel returned to take on the store after his father decided to refocus his energy on farming.
Although Davidner admits that there have been some tough times over the years, the downtown business has found success, overall, and has expanded significantly. Having relocated a few times over the years along River Street its most recent building at 25 River Street West is a far cry from the small store that opened in the ’30s.
While the city’s downtown core isn’t as vibrant as it once was, Davidner said that he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“It’s the heart of the city,” he said.
“It was most disastrous to see three major banks leave the downtown. It’s fine for them to have branches elsewhere, but their main office should be in the heart of the city.”
The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce should be given kudos for staying in the city’s downtown core, he added.
Chain stores don’t have the same heart as independents, he said, noting that at chain stores, shoppers simply accept the fact that they won’t get adequate service.
This acceptance doesn’t transfer to independent stores, he said, noting that the staff at Davidner’s Clothing and Western Wear goes above and beyond.
“It’s not a case of reluctantly providing service, but doing it with desire,” he added.
It takes this strong sense of commitment to make any business work, he said -- a sentiment Ted Matheson Men’s Wear owner Fred Matheson wholeheartedly agrees with.
Passed down through his family, beginning with his grandfather Fred Matheson in 1929, his business, like Davidner’s Clothing and Western Wear, has become a destination store in Prince Albert’s downtown core.
But, it hasn’t always been easy.
“I always heard stories of how (my grandfather) had to persevere to make it through month to month, and my father and my uncle were the same way. They worked very, very hard,” Matheson said. “There were some months where they didn’t have much to take home.
I would contribute the fact that we’re still in business to the fact that we’ve done our best to deal with the public in as courteous and careful a manner as possible. - Davidner’s Clothing and Western Wear owner Herschel Davidner
“I go for months without paying myself … It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
A successful business isn’t created overnight, which is why Matheson is critical of TaDa boutique owner Grace Dansereau’s comments in last Saturday’s issue of the Daily Herald.
After just more than a year of operating on Central Avenue, TaDa is closing on Feb. 16 -- a closure Dansereau told the Herald was symptomatic of a lack of foot traffic in the area.
“If the downtown was as bad as what (some) people think, Matheson’s wouldn’t be here for 84 years, or Davidson’s, Tramps -- (There’s) a long list of places,” Matheson said. “Those people are here because they work hard.”
This hard work extends beyond the four walls of these businesses, he continued.
“I think you have to be active in your community -- not only in the community downtown, but the community as a whole,” Matheson said. “You’ve got to dedicate yourself to your business, and that means working hard at it, working every single day – whatever it takes.”
“If you can survive those first three years, then chances are you’ll be able to stay in business, but you just can’t open on a shoestring,” Davidner said, echoing Matheson’s sentiment.
When it comes to businesses leaving the city’s downtown core, he said that everything moves in ebbs and flows. Although the Cornerstone Shopping District has attracted more businesses than the city’s downtown core lately, he suspects this will turn around at some point.
“We believe we’ve got a very excellent choice location, overlooking the river and the river park,” he said.
“We’ve got a beautiful riverbank,” North Star Screenprinting & Sportswear owner Kelly Stewart said in the office overlooking his Central Avenue business.
With foot traffic dwindling since his father first opened the trophies side of the store in 1973, Stewart notes that much needs to be done to attract people back to the area, which he said retains an excellent potential.
What Prince Albert needs is a big downtown attraction, like what Moose Jaw has with its downtown-based casino.
“It gets beautiful when you walk up to the casino, then you get window-shopping and that type of stuff,” he said. “It really revitalized the downtown.”
Whatever happens, Davidner said that he’s confident that the independent stores -- of which the city’s downtown core is mainly made up of -- will triumph over the chains, which make up most other shopping destinations in the city.