Austin store owner remembered fondly

Published 10:28 am Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gary R. Nemitz didn’t write the book on customer service, but he practiced it better than most.

“That’s where I developed my foundation of customer service in the retail world,” said Bonnie Mogen, a cousin and former long-time business neighbor on Austin’s North Main Street. “Greet them, smile and make them feel comfortable. Get to know their name as soon as you can.’ That’s what he taught me.”

Mogen first worked for Nemitz and his brother, Larry, in 1964 before taking over her own business, Bonnie’s Hallmark store and gift shop, next door to Nemitz’s Book and Tobacco Store in the 400 block of Main Street.

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Those were the golden days of downtown retail shopping. Every storefront was filled and nearby parking lots, too.

Gary Nemitz passed away Thursday, March 19 after a 12-year battle with dementia.

His funeral mass was held today at St. Augustine Catholic Church with interment in Calvary Cemetery.

One can only wonder what the inimitable Nemitz would say about the scene across North Main Street where a block of fire-damaged b businesses still scars the downtown area he loved so much?

He started working for his grandfather, William, when he was only 14, at the original Nemitz’s Book and Tobacco Store. Eight years later, he and his brother bought the business.

Larry went on to other business interests, but Gary remained owner of the business that bore the family name until 1999.

It was a one-of-a-kind business that was unequaled in Austin business history.

Daily newspapers, more than 400 magazines, paperback and hardcover books.

Gift items, including billfolds. Tobacco supplies. Cigarettes, cigars and others.

A front entrance, of course, but also a rear entrance for convenience.

Tickets to events, Minnesota Lottery tickets, money orders and a room with the swinging doors for adult magazines.

Every time the door to a walk-in humidor used to store pipe tobaccos was open, the rich aroma filled the store.

The counter in the middle of the store is where the owner held court. Sharing the latest news, talking his favorite sports — hockey and golf — and discussing local politics. The gray, then white, hair atop the head of a man, who obviously loved life.

“He was always an upbeat guy. Always positive. I don’t think I ever saw him lose his temper in the 20 years we were together on North Main Street,” said Dan Ball, employee and business associate for 20 years.

“He knew everybody who came into the store,” Ball said.

“I wonder if it came naturally?” Mogen mused, when asked where her cousin and business neighbor learned the skills to be a successful retail business owner for so long.

A “natural,” Nemitz also was on the Austin City Council and Mower County Board of Commissioners. The latter — a 1991 to 2001 — was his last foray in politics.

Richard Cummings, the retired 1st District county commissioner, served alongside Nemitz for 10 years.

“We didn’t always agree, but he always had the best interests of Mower County in his heart,” Cummings said.

Before his service on the county board, Nemitz took a turn on the Austin City Council.

Nemitz was appointed to the Austin City Council April 14, 1970 to fill the remaining two years of Leo Reding’s term (1st Ward), Reding won the mayoral bid that year.

Nemitz was elected to the 1st Ward position Nov. 8, 1972 and started his term in January 1973.

He was re-elected Nov. 2, 1976 and took the oath Jan. 3, 1977.

He served until the end of December 1980 (the end of his last four-year term).

Memories for a daughter, Deb Huckaby, are, naturally, most personal.

The lasting romance of Gary and his wife, Barbara Jean, was well-known to all who knew them.

“The story goes that when they started dating, Dad joked he had two girlfriends: Barbara and Jean,” she said.

Huckaby called the man a “great father” and much like his public persona at home.

While she can be excused for emotional bias, her words ring true in describing what kind of businessman Gary Nemitz really was.

“If every business owner would be like him, we would be in this economic mess we have with all those greedy people,” she said.

One of the opposites of “greedy” is “nice” and that seems to perfectly fit the man, being eulogized today by family and friends.