Rural Missouri Magazine

The shop on the square
W.S. Stevenson

by Bob McEowen
Weldon Stevenson has sold clothing and dry goods on the square in Shelbyville for 60 years.

It’s a slow day at W.S. Stevenson on the courthouse square in Shelbyville. One customer drops by looking for a greeting card and stays to chat for a few minutes. A handful of other shoppers pass through. The sales — a spool of thread, a pair of shoes, a blouse — aren’t impressive, but every bit helps.

It’s a slow day, but fairly typical lately, says Weldon Stevenson, who has owned the store for 60 years.

“Today is quiet. Yesterday was quiet. Friday we were overwhelmed,” he says. “We have some big, big days, but the bad days are more often than they used to be.”

Shopping at Stevenson’s store is a tradition in tiny Shelbyville, population 680 — the county seat, though not the largest community in Shelby County. Weldon purchased the store, once called H.V. Archer, in August of 1947 and has operated it ever since.

“I term it as an old-time dry goods store,” the 88-year-old retailer says. “We’ve got men’s work clothes, and a little bit of women’s jogging shoes, and a little bit of women’s ready-to-wear and piece goods — bolts of cloth, yard stuff.”

When Weldon purchased the store, Shelbyville was a thriving community with a bank, three grocery stores and a number of other retail shops. Weldon was born on a farm outside of town. His father died when Weldon was only 7. After high school, he worked at the bank until December of 1941, “when the bottom fell out,” he says.

Weldon responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor by enlisting in the military. He joined the Air Force and was eventually stationed in Hawaii until November of 1945.

He returned home and took a job at the county collector’s office until he bought the store. In 1948, he married Wahneta, his wife of 49 years. The couple raised two children and worked in the store together. “I still miss her,” he says of his wife, who passed away 10 years ago.

Arecia Weber, left, one of three part-time employees of Stevenson’s store, helps customer Dorothy Alexander select a greeting card.

Weldon’s own health is good. He travels occasionally, most recently to the wedding of a grandchild in Iowa. In 2004, he attended the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Mostly though, he occupies his time at the store, despite diminishing sales in recent years.

Although this year’s sales are better than those in 2006, the store is clearly an anachronism. Once every little town had retailers like Stevenson’s. Most are gone now, the victim of the big box stores.

“We’re barely surviving, but I like it here,” says Weldon, a member of both Missouri Rural and Macon electric cooperatives.

Stevenson’s still attracts a fairly loyal clientele. They come for women’s clothing, men’s boots and coveralls. In fact, men’s work clothes account for the bulk of sales.
Weldon carries Carhartt jackets, Key overalls and Wrangler jeans. He also stocks Wolverine boots in regular and steel toes. He tries to keep a good variety in stock but gladly places special orders for the hard to fit. It’s a service that’s not lost on customers.

“The other day I was looking for some jeans for my grandson. He wears a 28/30. It’s almost impossible to get a 28 waist,” says Janet Cline, a frequent Stevenson’s shopper who stopped in on this day for thread. “There was one pair in here. Weldon told me he could order me all I wanted.”

The wife of Missouri Rural Electric Cooperative director Vic Cline, Janet says the store fills a need for the rural customers of northeast Missouri.

“The farm guys around here, they wear jeans, they wear boots, they wear a certain shirt. I mean it’s like pulling teeth to get something else on them. Well, if Weldon’s got it, they just come in here and get it, and that’s it.

“I know people at Shelbina, the elderly ladies at the senior citizens center. Someone will say, ‘You have a pretty shirt on.’ They’ll say, ‘I got it at Weldon’s,’” Janet says. “They don’t want to go to the big Wal-Mart where they have to walk and walk and walk and walk. They’re not fancy dressers and they know that Weldon has pretty standard clothes.”

If there’s one thing that Weldon’s store is not, it’s fancy. The original portion of the store is a single storefront wide, with a wooden floor and a tin ceiling. There’s a noticeable dip in the floor in front of the old wooden sales counter, where Weldon now keeps a dwindling supply of dress shirts.

The shelves of the “old” store are stacked with denim work clothes and cotton overalls. Hand-lettered signs announce the prices: “Key jeans $15.98.” He carries “slightly irregular” T-shirts for $1.98 each and a selection of thermal underwear. He still has a few one-piece union suits, but it’s been years since he’s had regular customers for those items.

Some products are surprisingly unique.

“I’ve got a little boy’s overall that’s called Round House. They start in at 18 months,” Weldon says, describing the toddler bibs with snaps for changing diapers. “The Mennonites buy quite a few of those.”

The “new” portion of Stevenson’s store was added in 1973 and is devoted to women’s wear and piece goods. He once sold dress patterns and other supplies for women who sewed clothes. Today, quilters buy most of the cloth he sells.

“Years ago, women would come in and say ‘Give us three yards of that,’ and they’d
make a dress. That day is over,” Weldon says.

From left, Arecia and Weldon visit with customer Dorothy Alexander during a recent visit to W.S. Stevenson.

At one time, Weldon bought from salesmen who traveled from town to town. Now he orders over the phone from a catalog. He rarely ever meets a salesman anymore. Increasingly, some items are difficult or impossible to get.

Despite difficulties, the store lives on. Arecia Weber, an employee for the past five years, says customers shop at Stevenson’s for the personal service Weldon and his staff of three part-time helpers provide. “We’re friendly. We know people. I think that’s part of the reason they come and buy.”

For Janet Cline, shopping at Stevenson’s is as much a matter of support for Weldon as it is convenience.

“Everybody loves Weldon. He’s a strong Christian and takes very good care of his employees,” she says. “Everybody says they don’t know what they’re going to do if Weldon ever closes up.”

Not that Weldon is in any hurry to close up shop. As long as his health holds, he intends to keep opening the doors and supplying dry goods to the people of Shelby County.

“I’m staying with the store as long as the Lord permits,” Weldon says. “I’m pretty content the way things are.”

W.S. Stevenson is located at 102 E. Main St. in Shelbyville. The store is open Monday through Saturday from about 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. For more information, call 573-633-2351.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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