Modesto’s Keller’s set to close doors after six decades

Modesto's Keller's Closing After 60 Years

Julie Plumb, a store manager at Keller's in Modesto, discusses the closure of the fine gifts and home decor store after six decades in business.
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Julie Plumb, a store manager at Keller's in Modesto, discusses the closure of the fine gifts and home decor store after six decades in business.

After six decades of selling fine gifts and home decor in Modesto, McHenry Village mainstay Keller’s will close its doors in the new year.

Sisters Joyce and Cherie Keller told employees Wednesday night about their decision to retire and close the family business that began in 1956 with a store on Orangeburg Avenue that eventually landed at the current McHenry Village locale in 1978.

The decision to close came down to a simple thing: “The lease was up,” Cherie Keller said while sitting in an upstairs office Thursday afternoon. Downstairs, customers were keeping employees busy with brisk holiday business, including in the traditional Christmas Gallery filled with festive decor.

The sisters had been thinking about closing the store and retiring for about a year, she said. They now have two grandchildren each, ages 6 months to 6 years and spread from Seattle to San Diego, and both have lamented missing time with them while they’re still little. So when the shopping center’s managers were ready to discuss a new lease, Joyce and Cherie decided the time had come.

“It’s really the fact that we don’t want to commit to three more years (for a lease) and feel that tug from our kids,” said Cherie Keller, who moved to Seattle and left the day-to-day operations of the store to Joyce three years ago. “So this was really my sister deciding it was finally time.”

It will be an early retirement, by family standards.

“I was telling a customer today that my parents retired when they were 80 ... and the one thing they said to both of us was ‘Don’t work until you’re 80,’ ” she said. “ ‘Try to enjoy your family a little bit more.’ So it was really with that in mind where it’s either now or never.”

Keller was not sure how long the doors will stay open, but they have started their closeout sale and will remain until the merchandise is sold. While they had discussed selling instead of closing and worked with consultants on options, they decided the best course and value would be in closing, she said.

Erv Keller died nearly five years ago; his wife, Julie, still lives in Modesto. Joyce and Cherie Keller took over in 2002, keeping the store family-owned and -operated from the beginning. But, as time has gone by, it was clear that there would be no more family to follow in their footsteps. “There were no children who wanted to come and take over the store,” Keller said. “Our children all have their own careers and they don’t want to do the retail.”

As for the employees – there are eight to 10 currently working there – most were happy for the sisters, knowing their hearts are with their families, Keller said.

“Many of the people who work for us, this is their job in retirement,” she said. “So they were all smiles, which was very surprising and it was ‘Good for you, girls.’ 

Erv Keller was a traveling salesman and, contrary to popular belief, it was his wife who began the business in 1956, looking to fill a void in Modesto in an era when people still made their own clothes, Cherie Keller said.

“There was a huge yardage area, toys and – well, it was very much like a variety store” also carrying school supplies, greeting cards and small gifts, Keller said.

There also was an old-fashioned candy counter.

That candy counter remains, an original remnant from the first of what would – for a while – be five stores for Erv and Julie Keller, including one in Ceres; a clothing store; and a Hallmark shop.

“We kept it in the store kind of as a tribute to our father. It has been with us from the time it opened,” Cherie Keller said of the candy display.

Keller’s evolved into carrying fine gifts, china, crystal and housewares, a merchandising success story at the McHenry Village location, where it’s been since the five stores were consolidated into one.

Keller’s weathered the most recent recession, but not without cost. They downsized the store and began carrying fewer housewares items.

“What the recession taught us is that when you are an independent (retailer), square footage is not your friend,” Keller said.

In addition, the advent of the Internet and online shopping had an effect, she said. “But there still was a loyal customer base, so as we got smaller, there still were a number of people that stayed.”

It was shortly after the move to McHenry Village in 1978 that the Modesto tradition of the Keller’s Christmas Gallery began. “They didn’t know what to do with the upstairs,” Cherie said. Erv Keller was working on the store’s interior with a San Francisco designer who suggested a big Christmas shop.

It’s in that holiday wonderland, which has migrated over the years from upstairs to downstairs (this year it’s set up at the back of the downstairs area) where another tribute to Erv Keller’s stamp has remained – giving out free ornaments to children who visit the Christmas Gallery.

It’s just one of the personal touches that customers will miss.

Dawnette Masterpole of Modesto was browsing inside the store Thursday. She’d just learned that the store would be closing.

“I’m very surprised,” she said, adding that she goes to Keller’s three or four times a year to find unique gifts and other items. “This is one of Modesto’s few places to come, especially at Christmas.”

Customers on The Modesto Bee’s Facebook page were similarly sad at the news.

“So many great childhood memories. I still put up a tree purchased at Keller’s many many years ago,” posted one reader.

“My Mom started the tradition of buying our annual ornaments at Keller’s almost 35 years ago. She passed away last year,” posted another. “Keller’s has been a constant and will be missed.”

A letter going out will thank the store’s loyal customers “who have stayed with us all of these years,” Cherie Keller said. “And more importantly to Modesto. My parents were very committed to Modesto, the Modesto community, and so that’s where we have our sadness. We have our sadness for our employees who need to find new jobs, but also for all of the people who continue to shop here and have been wonderful.”

Pat Clark: 209-578-2312