In the midst of the final day, the end of an era, the closing moments of an increasingly rare small-town dream, Charles Fowler was quiet.
The shelves were bare and the conclusion was imminent, but there was no great sentimentality from the grocer-turned-community icon. Like a memorial service, friends, family, customers and even a priest flocked into Consumer’s IGA to say their farewells to the store that — though it was not quite home — helped make homes for so many.
Fowler, 75, admitted he was close to crying, but he comes from a generation of men who fight back tears. He was only quiet, and anyone who has seen him work his grocery store magic can tell you that is strange.
When the people left and the doors closed for the last time on the Sunday afternoon of Sept. 27, Fowler, his three grown children and their spouses embraced in the parking lot on 909 W. Sixth.
Karen Cryer, Fowler’s daughter, posed a question: What do we do now? How do you say an appropriate goodbye to the place that provided your livelihood for 45 years?
Fowler answered with a simple declaration: “I think I’m going to go visit Mom.” He got in his van and drove to Fairlawn Cemetery, leaving one great loss to visit another.
There was a time Fowler thought about retiring, but that was before JoAnn, his wife of 50 years, died in 2010. After that, Cryer thought her father might keep Consumer’s forever. Now, he has no wife and no store.
“It seems like a cruel trick,” Cryer said.
Fowler is writing a second act in a town and world far different from the one he knew so well. For 45 years, he was Charles Fowler the grocer. And now?
“I think he’s still trying to figure that out,” Cryer said.
When Fowler came to Stillwater in 1971, there were nine independent grocery stores and no such thing as a Wal-Mart. Oklahoma State University was a small agriculture school and Stillwater was a small town in the purest form. The national average cost for a gallon of milk was close to 66 cents and a dozen eggs cost 62 cents.
On the day Consumer’s closed, the last local grocery store was done. Wal-Marts flanked both ends of town. Oklahoma State’s enrollment was a record 24,551, with buildings rising every year and multistory apartment complexes popping up all over town.
“Just the grocery business has changed a ton,” Fowler said. “Ice cream used to sell during the summer only. Now it’s year-round. Crackers, soup, used to sell only in cold weather. Now it’s year-round. We have probably 5,000 different items, and it’s growing. Salt, half-salt, no salt, organic. It’s amazing we can keep up with it.”
Fowler was raised in the small town of Parsons, Kansas, and spent six years in the Army before coming to Oklahoma, where he started a family, worked early mornings and late nights to build a respectable living, almost following a script of American idealism. He is the kind of man who works until the job gets done, who doesn’t give in, who commands his emotions and never stops to feel sorry for himself.
“That generation, I’m not sure we still have that, that same work ethic or commitment,” said Kevin Fowler, Fowler’s oldest son.
Fowler saw the end of the Consumer’s era coming after the death of his good friend Dwight McCormick two years ago. Each year after renewing the building’s lease from McCormick, he would think, “We’re great now, but if Dwight dies, we’re in trouble.”
Stillwater is a town in the thick of a transition, if not an identity crisis. There was no longer a place for an outdated building housing a local grocery store that prioritized people over profits. The McCormick family couldn’t come to an agreement with Fowler, and despite three months of talks, negotiations never made much headway. Sprouts Farmers Market, a chain based in Phoenix, will replace Consumer’s in 2016.
In early December at Stillwater’s Food Pyramid, milk cost $4.57 and eggs cost $3.59, but Fowler kept working.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Fowler stood in the middle of the not-so-crowded 60,000 square-foot supermarket, waving to every customer who walked past. Fowler and Food Pyramid came to an agreement before Consumer’s closed. Food Pyramid hired Fowler and 12 of his almost 60 employees, who took on the store’s pharmacy and some of its inventory.
Fowler writes his schedule, working maybe three or four hours at peak times during the day. He calls himself a “meet-and-greeter,” but he is more like a former president, an ambassador, a reminder that nostalgia is the only ideal that might sell more than sex.
Fowler’s presence eases the transition to Food Pyramid for many of his loyal customers. Some even call him and won’t come to the store unless he is working. People stop Fowler, who is always dressed in a classic button-down shirt and slacks, every few seconds on the floor. They’ll stop for small talk, tell a joke or two. If they are on the way out, he uses the same phrases.
“Be careful. Thank you. Come back and see us.”
It has been a smooth transition, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same. Fowler went from an owner to a sort of figurehead. In a way, that’s what he wanted. At his age, he thought, maybe it was time to step back.
“They asked me to stay up front, and I knew what that meant,” Fowler said.
But Fowler is a consummate businessman, the kind who formed the backbone of this country. That means he wants the job done correctly, and it’s hard to part with hard work. When he sees the store’s entrance dirtied with unorganized carts or notices a young employee with an indifferent attitude toward a customer, he cringes.
“As I see things that should be done, it gets kind of mind-boggling,” Fowler said.
Last week, a woman stopped Fowler in Food Pyramid and asked if the store had “those little waffles,” the ones like Consumer’s used to carry. He gets that a lot, customers looking for the products they became accustomed to. Fowler joked he ate all the waffles, but he mentioned there was another woman who asked about the waffles earlier. He said he would ask management to see if the store could start carrying them.
“I don’t know what I’d do without my Charlie,” the woman said as she waved goodbye.
Fowler turned and lowered his voice.
“That’s all it takes,” he said. “She’s coming back. It’s very simple, but you can’t get people to do it like that anymore.”
Food Pyramid recently finished renovating the sign on the front of its store. It has a hardwood background behind large, sparkling letters with the Food Pyramid logo, nothing like the chipped red-and-yellow sign that read “Consumer’s” on 909 W. Sixth Street..
Fowler isn’t sure such trivial displays matter.
“I really think you could take that sign down out there,” he said. “It’s the people inside that make the difference, the people inside who make the return visits happen.”
When Consumer’s closed, community members honored Fowler at a city council meeting, gave him a standing ovation at a football game, wrote tributes to him in the newspapers.
Getting to that point took work. In Fowler’s first few years, a storm blew out the store’s window and caused serious damage. There was an armed robbery and even a bomb threat, all making for plenty of times Fowler was unsure. But Consumer’s was built on something, as the saying so fittingly goes, you cannot buy at Wal-Mart.
“We were losing something like the corner grocery store, the corner barber,” son Kevin said. “We just don’t have that ‘Cheers’ bar, that kind of place where people know your name when you walk in. When a big one goes away like that, the community certainly feels it. (The response) was about much more than Dad. It was about the store and what the employees had built and losing some of the past in all of this.”
The fairytale started in 1971, when Humpty Dumpty Supermarket hired Fowler as its manager. Fowler bought the store in 1993 and turned Consumer’s into his own. The store’s motto was “Hometown Proud.”
Consumer’s was the type of place where someone would greet you on the way in and put groceries in your car on the way out. Fowler even delivered groceries to people, often elderly, who couldn’t get to the store. Even last week at Food Pyramid, Fowler took a woman’s grocery list over the phone and made a delivery after she was in a car wreck.
The store had lasting appeal not because of big ideas or grand moments. Consumer’s was revered because of the hello on the way in, the friendly service, the familiar faces.
“(Fowler) just makes you feel welcomed so you keep wanting to go back,” longtime customer Jan Schelsky said.
Two or three generations of families shopped there, countless Oklahoma State students worked their way through college there, schools and churches held fundraisers there. Right after the holidays, customers filled carts with half-priced candy. Once a week, people came to the store for discounted bananas. It was a trick Fowler used to bring in customers even though he knew he would lose money on the bananas.
“The grocery business today is entertainment,” Fowler said. “It didn’t used to be that way. You’ve got to create a carnival-type atmosphere. You’ve got to get those high-priced groceries off their mind when they come in. Once you provide some of them that family reunion-type atmosphere, it makes a little difference.”
Consumer’s was a small building, 26,000 square feet. The fluorescent lighting was not quite as good, the linoleum floors not quite as attractive, the store not quite as flashy as a corporate supermarket. But it had an atmosphere that was difficult, maybe impossible, to replicate.
“Part of it was the insistence that we always asked each customer how they were doing, how their day is going, making people feel at home,” said Brandon Dees, who worked at Consumer’s for seven years before moving to Food Pyramid.
In private moments with his family after he knew he was going to lose the store, Fowler was angry. But he put his emotions in a box and focused on Plan B, which was less about him and more about his employees. He immediately got to work cutting the deal with Food Pyramid and trying to find work for employees who couldn’t come along.
“What crossed my mind many times was, ‘At least I’m going to eat for the rest of my life,’” Fowler said. “That’s what concerned me, was my employees.”
‘THE BIGGEST JOLT’
It must be strange, living long enough to see the people and places you built your life on fade away.
Fowler understands this concept, the fact nothing lasts forever. He knows because when he lost JoAnn to heart complications July 3, 2010 — the day after their 50th wedding anniversary — he lost something more important than a building or a business.
Close to two years before JoAnn’s death, it was time for Fowler to renew his lease on the building. Cryer was sure this would be the time he finally walked away.
But after talking with JoAnn, he decided to keep going. The couple wouldn’t get to travel the world or enjoy a typical retirement. Cryer asked her mother why, and she’ll never forget the response.
JoAnn said: “Oh, if you just could have seen the look on his face. He was so excited.’”
After JoAnn’s death, Fowler kept working, now at the urging of his children, who wanted Dad’s life to go on as normal as possible. They began a family joke that Fowler would be buried in the grassy island across the street from Consumer’s, his headstone facing the store.
Fowler wanted the work, too, but he says he was never the same. For most of his adult life, Fowler got out of bed at 4:30 a.m. He would open up the store by 6:30 and work until 6:30 at night, often seven days a week.
“We were all part of the store in regard to the financials,” Kevin said. “For a long time, we lived it at home.”
JoAnn made the family work, raising three children who graduated from Stillwater High School and OSU before settling down in Payne County. Kevin is vice president of Stillwater National Bank. Khristopher Fowler owns an insurance firm. Cryer is a local teacher. Fowler says without JoAnn, none of them would be where they are, he included.
“The loss of my wife was probably the biggest jolt,” Fowler said. ‘I never have gotten over that, and I never will get over it. Anything else is not that big.”
Losing Consumer’s was not easy, but it was expected. It was something he prepared for, something he doesn’t regret.
He doesn’t feel the same about JoAnn.
She had been sick, and the doctors weren’t sure what was wrong. Fowler was concerned of course, but looking back, he wishes he would have done more. More doctors’ visits, more research and mostly, more time.
“I would spend more time with her than I did,” he said. “I’d spend more time with her aches and pains. She wouldn’t let me, but I should have been man enough to say, ‘I’m not going to work today.’ … If I had it to do all over again, I’d do things much, much different. I’d take it much, much, much more serious.”
Since JoAnn’s death, Fowler’s children say he often relishes silence after a long day at work. He is still filled with energy, but he has learned to find comfort in solitude.
JoAnn’s death is the part of Fowler’s past that troubles him most. His future is one of uncertainty, of transition. The present is a state between past and future, carrying the burdens of both.
Celebrating what once was is easy. Answering “What now?” is much harder.
For Fowler’s children, that is the question that keeps coming back. Kevin remembers hearing countless stories about old men giving up their business or selling the farm and losing their sense of vitality.
The surprise, and maybe what most shows Fowler’s strength, is the fact Fowler has not only adjusted, but he seems to have found a second wind.
“It was such a shock to me,” Cryer said. “I thought he would miss it so much, being busy. But I think he was worn out. I think he was tired. He’s doing better, I think, than the rest of us.”
Fowler enjoys spending each morning having coffee with five or six of his friends at Aspen Coffee Company. He doesn’t mind sleeping in until 9 o’clock. He has time to spend with his family, including four great-grandchildren, three of whom were born in the past month. He’s even found a new TV show he loves to watch while starting his day.
It’s called “Good Morning America.”
“He thought that was somewhat of a new show,” Kevin said. “He had never been home during the workweek or even on Saturdays. That’s a small slice of what has opened up for him.”
In casual conversations, Kevin said his father is more engaging. His mind isn’t wandering to the store, to what the profit line reads, to what needs to happen next. He smiles more. The stress is gone from his face. Initially, the family worried Fowler’s demeanor was merely an act. Fowler is good at disguising his emotions, but Kevin is finally sold.
“To his credit, he’s been able to move on seamlessly to the next chapter, which is probably a good lesson to all of us,” Kevin said. “You can move on. It’s not over when you retire.”
Of course, Fowler’s children remain concerned about the days ahead. Fowler won’t say the words, but one can infer he is worried, as well. He doesn’t have any hobbies. He says he wants to volunteer at the hospital, get more involved in the church. Most of all, he wants to embrace family, maybe a proper reconciliation after years of relentless work.
“My family is No. 1,” Fowler said. “I’m afraid some of the time I was in the grocery business it probably wasn’t No. 1. As you grow a little older, you realize without family, you ain’t got nothing.’”
Fowler likes the extra work at Food Pyramid, but he thinks there will be a day he decides to walk away. He has accepted it is time to open a new chapter of his life.
“They don’t need me here,” he said. “Not forever.”
But these situations are never so simple. For now, he wants to work. When he works, he wants things done the right way. He doesn’t crave control, but he misses many aspects of the store he built. At 75, he is again trying to find where he belongs in the world.
Every day, Fowler drives to the back of Fairlawn Cemetery to visit the shining black headstone that bears his last name.
On a December afternoon, he was sweeping leaves off JoAnn’s grave. He cleaned the plot meticulously, his way of preserving something that is gone.
He decorated the site with Christmas wreaths and Catholic statues. He cares for the grave similarly with each holiday and keeps fresh flowers around throughout the year. One of Fowler’s wreaths had a note in the center that read simply, “JoAnn, Love You Always.”
“This is more than a special place,” Fowler said.
He looked at the empty plot next to JoAnn’s grave. This is where he will rest when the time comes, not across the street from a grocery store. Fowler picked up his broom and made one last round of sweeps.
People, places and lives are ever-changing. We are left with memories.
Certain things cannot come back, but Charles Fowler holds on.