Nelson’s Variety Store was a classic “five & dime” store that first opened in West Racine in 1940. They were a fixture that anchored that neighborhood shopping district for decades. A second Nelson’s opened in the late 1970’s on the far North side of Racine. Their doors closed for good on 1 Apr 2017 and left a void in Racine that won’t be filled by Amazon.
Nelson’s was not my place growing up. I was a Northsider, and while I had close family just a few blocks away I don’t recall going in more than once. In high school I had a girlfriend who loved the place and went with her, and I remember going to the far Northside location once about the same time for some school party. But, I knew Racine would be losing another part of our history and so the closing resonated with me.
Facebook Strikes Again
Local Racine historian Todd Wallace put out a call out on a Facebook group that specializes in Racine history, asking for someone with a high-quality film camera to capture Nelson’s before it was gone. I had been a photojournalist in the early 1990’s, and had just picked up a camera again so I took him up on it. The Nikon F4’s that I craved back then (when they would cost me half a year’s salary!) were now going for $300 on eBay. I had bought one recently, and a nice low-light lens, and thought it would be fun to document these unique institutions.
Wandering the aisles over the 3 days I shot my 5 rolls of color film, I came to fully understand what I missed out on in my childhood. The toy aisle was fantastic. Little bins of everything you could ever imagine, and you could still walk out with a few things for a dollar. I would have lost my mind in the marble bin in 4th grade…when kids still played marbles on the playground! And I can’t imagine what I would have done with all of the little dinosaurs. It was just row, and row of little…stuff. Not junk. Stuff. Things I didn’t know I needed, but now I knew I wanted them. How did I ever throw Packer parties and not stock up at Nelson’s?
I took a total of 5 rolls, 2 interiors at each store, and 1 exterior between them. The bad news is that I didn’t run enough film through my camera. One of the mirrors in the eyepiece came loose, and completely threw off the light meter readings. I remember when it happened, I was in the Westside store finishing my 1st role of interiors. I wouldn’t know until their were processed months later, that most of Westside interior shots, and all of my exteriors of the original store. were unusable. The less historic Northside location was fully documented. I’m still upset by that. Much of what I lost was the very cool fixtures that made up the edges of the display area. And, the exteriors. It was a perfect, moody, foggy dusk and I took several time exposures which just would have been amazing. They all turned out blank.
Here is a link to the entire collection of photos (27 from the Westside location, 61 from the Northside) http://archive.anamericangenealogy.com/Collection%20Images/Forms/Nelsons.aspx.
I hope they capture the feeling of what it was like to walk into these amazing establishments. Most focus on the little quirky details that I’ve never seen anywhere but Nelson’s. And now, we’ll never see them again.
More Links on Nelson’s Variety Store
Information on Nelson’s, and their closing: https://journaltimes.com/business/local/end-of-an-era-both-nelson-s-variety-stores-closing/article_c0e6037c-ac9e-5b93-a08e-bc8031f78d2a.html