Mineral is the kind of town where the fire department doubles as the senior activity center, where it feels like everyone is on a first-name basis. And when locals need to post a photo of the latest whopper of a fish they’ve caught, trade gossip or just buy more hot dog buns, they come to Mineral Market.
“The only thing that changes is that the people are getting older,” owner Dick Dunlap said. “It’s the same people catching the same ol' slimy, smelly fish.”
Now, after 33 years, the Dunlaps are finally looking to sell the market, though Dick acknowledges he’s “threatened” to do so enough times that his old friends might not take him seriously. But they’ve talked to a real estate agent and have had at least three serious inquiries from locals they know.
Dick, 69, and Leslee, 64, have given much of their lives to the store, occasionally hiring employees but mostly running the show themselves. Dick wants to spend more time visiting warmer climates in the winter, pursuing his ham radio hobby and rebuilding old cars. Leslee would like more time to pursue her interest in studying genealogy.
“We’re not gonna go home and sit down and watch TV, I'll tell you that,” Dick said. “We’re just gonna get on to another part of our lives.”
In past years, the Dunlaps have shut down the market for short periods to travel or work on the building. Each time, they feel an obligation to their friends and neighbors to keep the store running.
Dick Suter, the vice president of Mineral’s Lions Club has lived in Mineral for all of his 79 years. Each morning, he meets three or four friends for coffee at Mineral Market.
“We sit outside on a bench on the porch,” Suter said. “It’s a good thing to have, and we enjoy lying to each other.”
Dunlap was born in Mineral, growing up on the Mineral Lake Resort started by his parents. After college, he and Leslee returned to town, planning to spend a year or so helping Dick’s parents transition the resort to new ownership. After that, Dick was planning to use his education degree to find a teaching job in a local school.
One day, though, the couple made five trips to Elbe for supplies. It had been 10 years since the last store in Mineral burned down.
“I just said, ‘Well, I’m gonna go down and see Lil,’” Dunlap said. “I’m not gonna live in a town that doesn’t have a grocery store in it.”
Lil was the owner of the building that now houses the Mineral Market, which until the early 1960s had been Lil’s Cafe. The site had previously been home to a soda shop and watch repair business, according to Dunlap, and he would know. His grandparents moved to town in 1914, part of the original wave of families who started the community.
The Dunlaps spent a year fixing the building up, doing all but the wiring work themselves. On Memorial Day weekend of 1985, they opened up shop. They were hoping to run the store for a year or two, prove it was a sustainable business, then flip it to someone who would keep it running.
“We didn’t flip it, long story short,” Dunlap said wryly.
As a kid, Josh Austin, pastor of the Neighborhood Christian Center in Mineral, would ride his bike to the market. Today, he does the same with his kids.
“It was the spot to meet up with your friends and get ice cream,” he said. “Now I’ve got two kids who view it the same way. … The Dunlaps are the most well-known family in town. Everyone knows who they are. It’s nice to have someone you can talk with, tell stories with.”
The Dunlaps still believe in the importance of having a place in town where people can buy what they need. But running the only store in Mineral isn’t just an obligation to people’s material needs – it’s an emotional commitment as well.
“It’s just absolutely wonderful being this involved with the whole community. You know everybody, and that kind of thing just doesn’t exist anymore,” Dick said. “The other side of that is that sometimes you just get too involved, and that can be a problem. You wake up at night worrying about them.”
That’s why the Dunlaps are hoping to find a local buyer for the store, one who understands what it means to the residents encircling Mineral Lake and is committed to meeting their needs.
Talking to Dick is to hear a living history of Mineral (Leslee grew up in nearby Eatonville). He points to the black and white pictures on the walls and lists the history of each building. His grandparents and young father first lived here in a tent house in one of the lumber camps more than 100 years ago, and nearly the entire history of Mineral is told in terms of family friends, relatives, schoolmates and fishing buddies.
“We all played together, and it was just an absolutely different world than it is now,” he said. “If you wanted to go swimming, you went swimming. If mom didn’t know where you were, and it was hot, she just assumed you were over with the rest of the kids at the swimming hole.”
Dunlap’s market is filled with fliers and posters, the requisite fish photos and historical shots. Dozens of antique radios line one wall, part of Leslee’s collection. Everyone who comes to town in need of a fishing license, matches or snacks gets that taste of local flair.
“This store has a lot of us in it,” Dick said. “All of that kind of stuff is just icing on the cake. That’s the fun part of the whole thing.”
Of course, getting to do business in the place he’s always called home doesn’t hurt either.
“Some of the older folks in town have watched me grow up,” he said. “I remember someone came into town a few years ago shaking her head: ‘I can’t believe you’ve stuck with anything as long as you’ve stuck with this store.’”