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Larson's to close after 69 years

The billowing smoke was plainly seen from the freeway as Bruce Larson rolled back into town from a quick trip to Portland in the 1970s.

It didn't take long for the second-generation appliance and furniture store owner to identify the location: his warehouse, filled with thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise, including dozens of uninsured television sets.

"He lost a ton of money that day," recalls Troy Larson, his son. "I remember the look on his face. There was just a blank stare on his face as we sat and watched for 20 minutes. Then he turned and said, 'Time to start over.' He wasn't going to let anything get him down, he worked and worked and worked."

Whether it was nursing along the family business from its humble origins, expanding operations to three other cities, or fending off national competitors, Bruce Larson's perseverance kept the business afloat and changing with the times and trends. Now, with Bruce's waning health and his son and daughter pursuing successful careers in California and Europe, Larson's Home Furnishings' days are numbered.

After nearly 70 years, Larson's will shutter its appliance and furniture locations on South Fir Street sometime within the next three months.

"My Dad is 79 and it's time for him to retire," said Troy Larson, who launched a wealth management firm 16 years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area. "Rather than bring in a liquidation team and letting employees go, we're going to do a total liquidation sale next month. Then we'll take a look at inventory and decide if we need a little longer, or go to auction."

He said the buildings, a multilevel, 46,500-square-foot building north of 10th Street and a 24,270-square-foot structure south of 10th Street connected by a sky bridge, will go on the block this week.

Al and Lulu Larson bought a local appliance repair business on East Main Street in 1945 and before long got the local Maytag franchise. Bruce learned the business as a young man, starting as a washer repairman. He went off to Northwest Nazarene College before eventually acquiring his father's share of the company in 1963 and later his mother's interest. He pushed the superstore concept long before many of his national competitors, expanding into Klamath Falls, Roseburg and Redding, Calif., in the 1980s.

Although he helped out in the warehouse from an early age, Troy Larson's career took a different path. He was a regional sales and marketing director for 24 Hour Fitness before joining San Francisco-based investment bank Hotovec, Pomeranz & Co. In 1998, he co-founded Clear Path Capital Partners. Bruce Larson's daughter, Traci, who once had been considered the prime successor, left the store in 1999 to pursue a career in law enforcement. She now works in the Naval Criminal Investigation Service.

In its heyday, Larson's struck a preemptive blow against encroaching national retailers by expanding to Roseburg and Redding, Calif.

"Dad wanted to expand and see how he could do in different markets," Troy Larson said. "He loved his employees, but with the other stores things got diluted and it was hard to maintain standards. He felt it was best to consolidate, because it was way too much effort for the return from those stores."

Eight years ago, Bruce Larson sought to steer the company a different route through an Employee Stock Option Program, but the economy soon collapsed into recession. Larson's attempted to regain momentum by taking on consignments and adopting Oregon products as a specialty, but that wasn't enough to stem the flow toward the national players.

"All of the industry has a hard time competing with behemoths with their big advertising budgets and purchasing power," Troy Larson said. "It made it hard for people like my dad, even when they were part of buying groups, to compete."

Ralph Weiss, who worked at Larson's between 1975 and 1985, leaving as vice president, said Bruce Larson assembled a motivated commission sales force during the expansion years and rewarded them with a profit-sharing plan.

 "They made some awfully good money in those days," Weiss said. "They put in a stereo den during the '70s and one year it seems we did $1 million in stereo sales alone. Profit-sharing was a good idea, but later on, people started demanding their stuff right then and there. It didn't mean much to younger people. It turned out to be a nice nest egg for many of us, but then people wouldn't wait for years to cash in." 

Weiss said the pressures of local competitors, such as West Coast Furniture, along with Costco and other national firms, as well as builders who were plunged into bankruptcy during the recession, took their toll on Larson's. Some internal moves as managers turned over hurt as well.

"We used to be the local power in appliances," said Weiss. When he returned to oversee the store for six months during 2013, he found "they had crowded out the appliance section with furniture that people didn't want anymore." 

Last year, with his father's deteriorating health becoming an issue, Troy Larson began taking steps toward the inevitable end of an era.

"If my sister and I didn't have something else going on, maybe we would have taken another look and tried to find a specialized niche to compete in the marketplace," Troy Larson said. "In recent years, we've seen tons of people in our industry. You look back at people, even with a dynamic skill set, who struggled and moved on, like Joe Pedrojetti (who shuttered Joseph Winans Furniture Co. in 2010). It's just an extremely difficult business in which to make a profit anymore."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

Larson's Home Furnishings plans to close in September. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore