Jetts Department store is an anomaly, defying small-town expectations and serving as a Main Street anchor in this Harper County town for 105 years.

Loyal customers keep it going, said owner Sherrie Eaton. But loyal customers say it is Eaton’s business savvy that has kept Jetts relevant for the past three decades.

“I love shopping in our hometown,” said customer Heather Struble. “The people treat you like family. They know exactly what I want when I want it.”

Much of it is personal service from not only Eaton but employees Carol Barber, Lisa Prowse and Heather Moore.

Each month, Andra Koblitz Tidwell of Kingwood, Texas, near Houston, said she has an item shipped to her from the store in Anthony.

“I grew up in between Anthony and Kiowa,” Koblitz Tidwell said. “It’s like receiving a little bit of home each month.

“I’ve been shopping at Jetts forever and ever and remember going with my mom and grandmother. It was always a big thing to go in and do shopping there.”

Her cousin is staff member Carol Barber.

“Between her and my mom, they figure out what they think I would like and mail me some pants or a shirt from there each month,” Koblitz Tidwell said.

“My co-workers see things and say, ‘That must be from Jetts.’ You would think a little town won’t have cute, stylish things, but they do. It doesn’t matter if you are younger or older, they have a variety of things.”

The making of Jetts

In 1912, the W.E. Jett Mercantile Co. in Anthony opened on Main Street. At the time, it was part of a chain of department stores owned by P.H. Parmenter, Frank Parmenter, W.E. Jett, L.D. Farmer, Joe Farmer and Arthur Farmer. The Farmer brothers operated the stores, but the stores were named after Jett and Wood Wholesale Grocery in Wichita.

The first stores opened in 1906 and were centered in the Greensburg and Pratt area, Eaton said. At one time, there was a string of Jetts stores in other Kansas and Oklahoma communities: Herington, Wellington, Winfield, Kingman, Blackwell, Ponca City and Alva.

The Jetts store in Anthony is the last one still open.

The store’s mission was simple: Shop the markets, stock unique items, keep up with styles and quality. Eaton still maintains that philosophy.

“We think about a lot of competition in these days, but in those days, there was just as much competition, maybe more so,” Eaton said. “They wanted to be the fashion leaders of south-central Kansas, and I believe they were.”

Bucking the trends

Up until the mid-20th century, every town of substance boasted at least one – if not two – department stores. Hutchinson had Wiley’s and Pegues. Great Bend had a Wiley’s that later became a J.C. Penney. Dodge City had Eckles. Wichita had Innes, Bucks, Walker Bros., Hinkles and Henry’s.

But by the 1970s, as malls began to be built across the nation, these longtime anchors of Main Street and downtown began to struggle. Shoppers turned to the specialty stores in malls. And in many cases, those malls had their own department stores: Dillard’s, Sears, Penney, Nordstrom and Macy’s.

For many Kansas department stores, the farm crisis of the 1980s also served as a death knell as expendable cash became tighter. Super stores and box stores replaced the Main Street mainstays.

Eaton said she survived by learning what worked and what didn’t.

“All of these were learning things,” she said. “We discovered once people change their shopping habits, it is awfully hard to get that trade back.

“By then, they are going to Wichita. But I always say the road goes both ways. So while we have people who run to Wichita, we have people who come out from Wichita to shop with us because they like the service.”

In more recent years, brick-and-mortar stores have given way to internet shopping. Earlier this month, Wichita’s Towne West announced that Dillard’s – a mall anchor – would close one of its two locations at the mall and convert the other into a clearance center. The K-Mart next to the mall also will close in March.

When Eaton and her husband, Jim, and a business partner bought Jetts in the early 1980s, the department store carried fabrics, linens, clothing for men, women and children and special gifts.

Eaton said she focused on what would sell – quality clothing for women and children, shoes and accessories. The store also has a full-service Merle Norman Cosmetics studio and runs a tuxedo rental.

The department store has a website, Jettsstore.com, but doesn’t have online shopping. Shoppers can order by calling the store and talking with one of the employees. And there is a Jetts Facebook page, which helps keep loyal customers informed about current sales.

“I struggle with how people buy off the internet, because some of my lines would like for me to do that, I can’t do it,” Eaton said. “I want to see it (the clothing). I want to see how it is made and feel the fabric. Things look different on the computer screen than they do in person.

“One of the reasons we have stayed in business so long is that we sell good, quality merchandise. Let me tell you, a lot of merchandise sold anymore is disposable. You wear it one time and it doesn’t look worth wearing another time.”

Although customers of all ages shop the store, the average age is 40 and older. Her only competition, Eaton joked, is the obituary page.

Her shoppers come from Oklahoma, Texas and all over Kansas.

Longtime multigenerational customers talk about cherished bathrobes, dresses and other merchandise bought at Jetts decades ago – and still in use.

“Shopping used to be an activity, a pleasure,” Eaton said. “People enjoyed shopping. They loved clothes.

“We have become a society that doesn’t dress the way people did even 10 years ago. We have become a society that loves our technology. And some of the (younger) shoppers aren’t as aware as much about personal service and don’t realize how much time a personal service can help them.”

Sherrie’s philosophy

Faith is at the root of all of Eaton’s business decisions.

“It’s one of those God things,” she said. “We didn’t intend to be in business. We had no money, we really didn’t. But we were able to arrange to buy it.

“We made mistakes and it took awhile to work through our mistakes. Every step of the way, if God hadn’t been there with us, we wouldn’t have made a success of it.”

Such was the case when the store had a fire in 2001.

“God has a plan,” Eaton said. “We don’t always know this at the time but it does.

“In 2001, we had an electrical fire. It wasn’t a major fire, but we didn’t own the building and our insurance company wouldn’t cover us without the wiring being improved. This building (across the street from the original) was open.”

The store moved.

“She had the opportunity to close the store, but she knew we needed to keep the store going,” said Gwen Warner, director of the Anthony Chamber of Commerce.

“Sherrie is one of the biggest supporters in this town. She is involved in anything to make things happen. She is one of those people that operates on what works best for the town.”

Anthony’s downtown has a jewelry store; a cake-decorating and party supply store; and Kristy’s Kafe, known for its baked potato pizza and a ghost named George.

But Jetts remains the downtown anchor.

“We don’t answer to a corporate board of directors and their stockholders,” Eaton said. “Many companies (such as Dillard’s) are under intense pressure to perform big time.

“The business reason as to why we are still here is that we have good, loyal customers with good staff, and because that is God’s plan.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

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