Saying Goodbye to a Good Buy: One man’s epitaph for Shopko

Tom Smith

tom smith | make green bay weird | june 2019

I, as many Green Bay residents were, was shocked to hear that the Shopko retail chain would be going the way of analog TV. Yes, that's right, the entire chain is shuttering their doors. Shopko has been part of my life since I moved from Milwaukee to Green Bay when I was 4 years old. My family lived on Division Street not that far from Military, meaning it was a short trip from our house to Shopko. My family shopped there frequently, not only because of its convenient location but also for their low prices and the fact it was connected to a Sure Way grocery store. Sure Way, at the time, was the king of the grocery scene in Green Bay with many locations, frequent marketing and good prices. Between Shopko and Sure Way, you could kill a lot of birds with one stone in a shopping trip. I remember getting excited as a kid near Christmastime when Shopko would spruce up their toy section for the Christmas season. I always preferred looking at the toys at Shopko over looking at the Sears Roebuck catalog. This has stayed with me to this day because I would much prefer to support brick and mortar retail over shopping online.

In the middle of third grade my family moved from Division Street on the west side to Jean Street on the east side. This move put us even closer to a Shopko connected to a Sure Way. I, of course, have always referred to this Shopko as “Shopko East." The Shopko on Military always remained “Shopko," never “Shopko West." My memories of Shopko East and the Sure Way connected to it are exponentially more vast and vivid than my memories of the Shopko on Military. I know someday my grandson, Logan, will ask me where I was when I first read the “Superman vs Muhammed Ali - Collectors Edition" and I will instantly respond, “I read it in Shopko East while my mom was grocery shopping at Sure Way."

The move to the east side coincidentally was near the time when I first developed an interest in comic books. Oddly all my childhood memories of buying comics seem to be after the move. At this point in the history of Green Bay there had not been a comic book shop, so you didn't have a go-to place like we do now with Powers Comics. Back then I had to walk through five miles of snow to get comic books, without shoes on. Just kidding, I'm sure I did have to walk through the snow to buy comics, but I would have had boots on and it wasn't five miles. I had a route of different places I would hit up to find different selections of comics. Shopko East, being the closest, was always a place I would check. Kmart East, Kohl's Foods (which was located where the Rogan's Shoes is on the East Side), Gigots Pharmacy, Thomas Drugs, Bosse's News Depot (which at the time was located across the street from Kellogg (now Associated Bank). Bosse's was my favorite, they seemed to have the best selection in town. Bosse's also had a super-cool mystique to it, kind of like you were traveling back in time and with good reason; it was founded in 1898. Osco Drug in the Port Plaza Mall was another stop, and Holzer's Drug on Washington Street – whose windows always seemed to be steamed up from their lunch counter – near Prange's department store.

The next thing in my life that I was into as passionately as comics was music, and Shopko East was a gateway or a portal to my lifelong obsession with music – collecting records, CDs and cassettes, and the only career I've ever had: working in a record store. Way back in 1981, there was no internet to get music for free from, you had to discover new music by listening to the FM and AM radio stations of the area, WIXX, WKAU, WAPL and WGBW were ones I listened to a lot, but I loved going around the dial.

Reading magazines and books definitely helped steer you in the right direction. You could have music delivered to your house via the Columbia House Record Club, the BMG Music Club, and I also remember a place my friend Steve and I ordered some records from called Earth Tunes. I also remember them going under and getting ripped off on some records we ordered. You also could go to a retail establishment and buy a record or cassette. Just as with comics I had a route to buy and window shop records around town. This included such stops as Shopko East, Kmart East, Galaxy Of Sound and Musicland in the Port Plaza Mall, Record City on Washington Street, Freedom Records and Pipe Dreams. Shopko East was frequented more than these other locations because other than Kmart East, these were all downtown, and during the school year I could only make it downtown on Saturdays. The music department at Shopko East had a fairly large amount of space and it was stocked well with the popular music of the day. As my musical tastes broadened and my taste got more underground-ish, the stores downtown became more important to me. The staff in the music department at Shopko East was very friendly and was very tolerant of me and my friends when we spent a lot of time in there playing Pitfall on their Atari video game system. I loved the selection Shopko East had on import cassettes, and they all seemed to be priced at $3.99. It was cheaper for me to buy import copies of the Black Sabbath catalog at Shopko East than buying the domestic versions at the Record Stores downtown. The list of great rock and roll artists that I purchased music by for the first time at Shopko East include the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, Cheap Trick, the Beatles, AC/DC and Sammy Hagar. Hey, it was 1981, excuse me but I thought Sammy Hagar rocked. I bought “Standing Hampton" by Sammy on cassette at Shopko East because I needed to get both his recordings of the song “Heavy Metal." Little did I know Sammy would morph into my generation's Jimmy Buffett. Shopko East's music department was instrumental in laying the foundation of my life long obsession with music.

Shopko East also played a big part in my social development. The move from the west side to the east side caused me to switch schools for fourth grade. I went from Redeemer Lutheran School to Eisenhower Elementary. I was left on the outside of all the cliques. The video game arcade craze led Shopko East to install some arcade video games. This mini-arcade had two different locations at the store. The first location was pretty much off in a spot where we were left to ourselves. The first arcade game I wasted too many quarters on at Shopko East was Galaga, then I moved to Missile Command. They also had this crappy game called Carnival that involved shooting ducks. We somehow discovered that if you unplugged it and then plugged it back in, when it turned back on, it would have a random number of credits on it. Free video games was like winning the lottery back then. We got so arrogant with this that if the number of credits wasn't high enough when it came back on we would immediately unplug it and start the process over again.

Eventually the Golden Video Game Goose/Duck came to an end. I was there the day that Shopko East finally figured out what was going on when they came up and angerly unplugged Carnival while one of us was playing it. They ordered us out of the store and that was the last-ever free game of Carnival. Which meant the last game of Carnival ever because that game was not cool enough to actually pay to play it.

A number of people I met at Shopko have become life-long friends to this day. Weird thing is that a number of us would go on to become involved in the Green Bay punk scene. I also have many memories of people who hung at Shopko East who did not become friends but whose actions have immortalized them in neighborhood lore. One kid named Gary (I remember his last name but won't reveal it) got local famous for shoplifting at Shopko East. Gary would hide in the store and hours after the store was closed he would emerge from his hiding place to steal stuff. Gary was pretty brazen because he would solicit from people lists of what they wanted him to steal for them. Gary eventually was caught and his exploits made the Paul Harvey radio show. Paul even used the Shopko tag line “Say Hello to a Good Buy at Shopko" by saying something to the effect that a customer in Green Bay, Wisconsin had “Said Hello to a Really Good Buy." I grew up shopping with my parents, shopping by myself and eventually, shopping with my daughter at Shopko and it's sad to see it go. To this day I was still shopping there and using their Optical department. I guess it's time to find a new place for glasses. Live, Long, and Say Goodbye to Shopko.

Since 1984, when he first began selling records at Galaxy of Sound inside the Port Plaza Mall, Tom Smith has been part of the Green Bay music scene. Promoting his first show in 1986 and hitting his stride with the Concert Café (1995-2001), Smith continues to promote shows in Green Bay. He first honed his journalistic chops while serving as a student DJ at WGBW, interviewing such icons as Motörhead and the Ramones. Today you can find him championing live music and managing The Exclusive Company in Green Bay.

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