Having created a viable, long-time business in his home town and kept it going for over 40 years, LaMar Olsen understands the power of buying locally.
As a Bonners Ferry High School class of 1954 graduate, LaMar went into the Army and then took classes for three years learning to repair typewriters and calculators. He first worked in Pullman, WA, then moved back to the Porthill area to help his father on the farm.
"When farming became financially unstable 35 years ago, at about the same time that fuel and fertilizer became high priced and grain was selling for under $3 a bushel, I started getting interested in opening a business," LaMar said from his sewing machine repair shop at the back of LaMar's on Main Street.
At first LaMar repaired typewriters and calculators at his ranch when he wasn't busy farming. When he and Dorothy married, they opened a small repair shop on Kootenai Street, then later moved their shop to Bonner Street where they expanded their inventory and began carrying typewriter and adding machine ribbons as well as a few office supplies. At that time, Dorothy was teaching free-hand embroidery on sewing machines and LaMar began to repair sewing machines in addition to the typewriters and calculators. In 1987, they bought the building on Main Street where they have stayed for the past 22 years.
In addition to repairing sewing machines, LaMar's carries office supplies and a large inventory of craft and art supplies. There is an entire wall devoted to stickers and a large selection of scrap booking supplies as well. LaMar's carries printer ink cartridges and a large variety of pens, pencils, markers and school supplies. Three self-service photocopy machines round out the offerings at LaMar's. LaMar said that his staff is willing to help make large photocopying orders and that he has a machine that can enlarge items up to three feet wide for projects such as blueprints and landscape drawings. LaMar's also makes large banners.
For customers searching for just the right paper to complete a special project, LaMar's carries an incredible 372 different kinds and colors of paper and 112 different colors of envelopes as well as fancy vellum paper for very special projects such as wedding or birth announcements.
"I can comfortably say that there's no place in the Northwest that has the colored cardstock and colored envelopes that we have," LaMar commented modestly. "For the most part, we try to make sure that everything in our store is archivable, even our pens and glue are."
As a business owner for many, many years, LaMar has emphatic opinions about community support for local businesses.
"We have always had to depend on community support," said LaMar. "That's what it's all about. If you buy something from me, then I can go buy something from someone else. The stores on Main Street now try to complement each other's inventory. That's part of making the town work. When people come to town and shop on our three blocks of stores, they can usually get the basic things they need. Even when I semi-retire, I'm keeping the store open so that there is a local outlet for craft supplies, office supplies and copies. Years ago, Boundary County depended on the mining industry, then logging, then agriculture. Now, much of those industries have gone, so we've got to support each other."
LaMar feels that many people who have recently relocated to Boundary County may have a misconception about the availability of items in a small town like Bonners Ferry.
"My observation is that we have many retired people now moving here," he explained. " It's possible that they may be used to a larger selection and they may automatically go to a bigger town for that larger selection, but I'd like to encourage them to check us out and see that we actually do have just as good of a selection. I can understand people who may want to see 15 of a certain product before they choose the one to buy, but in these smaller businesses, we've learned to select the very best products for the money. Many businesses here do that. From work boots at Larson's to home interiors at McCoy's to here at my own business. If we carry products, they have to be high quality. In big cities like Spokane, they can tolerate a certain amount of returns, but we want our merchandise to be of such good quality that it will never have to be returned."
LaMar believes very much in the power of buying locally, and he practices what he preaches. For instance, many years ago when he used to sell typewriters, he went to pay his insurance bill. While in the insurance agent's office, he noticed that his agent had bought new typewriters from someone else. He cancelled his insurance policy immediately.
"Even something small like buying a pen or spending 10 cents to copy something helps pay the light bill," said LaMar. "I would be happy to carry all of the school supplies needed by the students here if the school district would send me the supply lists."
As a Bernina Sewing Machine Dealer, LaMar is authorized to repair sewing machines across the region as well as locally. Customers can drop off malfunctioning sewing machines at LaMar's and he will repair them promptly. He also travels to Sandpoint once a week to repair sewing machines at the Ben Franklin's.
"One of the things that I could use is input from the public as to what brand names of art supplies they would like us to carry. If people will tell us what they want, we will get it," he commented.
LaMar feels confident about the continued success of his business.
"In the last month, I have seen people buying things that I know they've been holding off on," he concluded, "so that's a good sign."