Image a small store in a historic downtown. Inside, a lady is overjoyed at finding the collectible item she has journeyed hours in search of, a university student is browsing through more than 1,000 Halloween costumes, a soon-to-be-bride is on the phone reserving an LCD projector, and the employees are experimenting with a new piece of inventory: a toy monkey that doubles as a slingshot. This is Glen's Fair Price Store in the fall of 2006.
You could spend your entire day in the shop, milling though over-crowded aisles featuring everything from professional camera equipment to vintage candy to whoopee cushions. That was my dream as a child. Back the, Glen's offered exotic birds and hamsters. If I had been especially good, I was given the opportunity to go upstairs to a show-room filled with porcelain girls, stuffed animals, and dollhouses.
The birds and hamsters are gone now. "The become more of a hobby." co-owner Gary Stiteler explains. "We would get busy and not have enough time to care for our miniature pet store." That's just one example of how Glen's, named for Gary's father who began the business in 1941, has evolved with the times. "My dad was the first person in Harrisonburg, VA to sell tropical fish," Gary says. "We had gold fish in the windows in the '50s, then came the birds and hamsters."
Glen's can claim several other important firsts in Harrisonburg, VA: first to hire a Black employee (before the Civil Rights movement), first to bring Santa Claus to town to meet local children, first to custom-make Easter baskets with live chickens and ducks, and first to have area women sleeping outside the door, anticipating the arrival of a new Madame Alexander doll. All this from a store that started out selling patent-remedy medicines and pharmaceutical items.
"We carry anything we think will sell," Stiteler says. "Anything new and different." That philosophy is part of the reason the business has been successful for over 65 years. Gary's sister, Melinda, spends her vacation in Las Vegas every year, shopping for new additions to the store. "She calls me from a trade show, excited about something new she's found."
Another family vacation, in the early '80s, provided an important turning point for the business. "We'd always sold costumes, but that year a JMU student had asked if he could rent one. We'd never though of that," Stiteler recalls. A few weeks later the family went to the Daytona 500 and visited a costume rental shop while in Florida. "We kept asking questions, and the owner finally said, 'It sounds like you want to get in the business.' He sold us his entire inventory that day." The Stitelers stuffed two vans full with 125 costumes and created what would soon be the most popular part of their company. They've expanded to between 1-2,000 costumes now, plus racks of rental catalogs for special ordering. The other reason they've been so successful? Incredible service. Gary and Melinda are known for opening at odd hours for a customer, tracking you down if you leave something at the store accidentally, remembering your name (and your grandparent's names), and offering expert advice on what's in their store. "The customer is our most important product," Stiteler says, almost as if it's a company mantra. Then he leans back a bit and grins.
"They're our friends."