Leo Rader, the dry-goods king, still reigns supreme at 89 years old

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Leo Rader sits behind the cash register at the store he’s owned since 1956. 

In the age of big-box shopping and online ordering, old-fashioned dry goods stores are fast moving from Main Street to the history books. But that isn’t the case in Lockwood, where Rader’s has been in business longer than many of the town’s residents have been alive. “Some of them, (we’re) waiting on the fourth generation,” says Leo Rader, the store’s 89-year-old owner, of the customers he’s seen come through the doors.

Leo’s been around the store since 1938, when his parents moved to Lockwood and bought the business. He spent the next few years growing up: High school was followed by time in the military during World War II, after which he was graduated from Drury College with a degree in economics. But after all that, he came back to the store and purchased it from his folks in 1956. “Outside of a couple of days in the hospital, I had 36 years that I had opened and closed the store,” says Leo.

Although health issues now pull him from the day-to-day operations more often then he’d like, Leo still comes up as often as he can. And when he’s not there, the store’s still in good hands with two of his nieces, Kay Means and Janice Theurer.

Sporting a button-up shirt and tie, Leo sits behind the counter as he talks. “I said, ‘I’ve worn a tie since 1951,” says Leo of a recent conversation about his neckwear. “I hate to see the modern trend of men with suits on and no necktie. It’s kinda like seeing a woman with a tank top on in the wintertime. They’re not dressed right.”

In case you’re wondering, yes, you can buy neckties in the store. As well as men’s work clothing, button-up shirts, blouses, blue jeans, dresses, belts, shoe polish, swimming trunks, clothing patterns, hats, scarves, undergarments, work boots, shoes, jewelry, thread, baby garments, buttons, zippers, knitting needles and fabric – lots of fabric, keeping the community’s quilters in good supply.

While there are a few things Leo says he doesn’t handle any longer – like women’s shoes and bathing suits – much of the categories of inventory haven’t changed over the years. But the prices and trends have. He points over the women’s section, which used to be just dresses. “The first (section) was $2.99 prints, and the next section was $3.99,” recalls Leo. “And then the next was what we called dressy. They were $5.99.”

Normally one wouldn’t expect an octogenarian to be up on the latest in women’s fashion, but Leo’s an exception. He says that TV is a good source of inspiration when the shop purchases items, and mentions a “kinda sharp” chevron-patterned top that he recently saw a newscaster wear. But he doesn’t think the pattern will stay around for long. “I’m surprised they they’re still wearing (chevron) this year, but they are,” he says.

Leo recalls the introduction of staple brands at the store, such as Converse and Levi’s, in the early 1950s. “At one time, they made just one style,” he says of the jean manufacturer. “Shrink to fit, button Levi. And you know how cheap it was? $2.90. And they’re $39.99 now.” He also remembers when they took a chance on a new shoe style, which at $7.99 was the highest-priced pair ever sold at the store. “We couldn’t sell them,” he remembers, noting the shoes were “spikes,” or today’s high-heels. “It was too high. The highest we’d had before that was $5.99.”

Other things have changed, too. “Saturday used to be our biggest, by far, day of the week,” says Leo. “Now it’s the worst one…It’s not unusual for our farmers to come to town every day. And used to, it was once a week.”

According to Leo, the store’s biggest problem nowadays isn’t lack of customers. Instead, it’s suppliers – both the lack of and the dealing with. “We used to have as many as ten wholesale houses where we could buy sheets, pillowcases, towels and all that,” says Leo. “I don’t have a one right now.” The difficulty comes from the acquisition of smaller companies, which makes it nearly impossible for small businesses like Leo’s to buy things in manageable quantities. “I don’t know how big you have to be before you’re considered big enough to handle it on your own,” he comments on the mergers. “The little ones seem to suffer from the fact that they’re outnumbered.”

A child of the Depression, Leo is also faced with these bigger companies wanting to see his credit rating before doing business. The only problem? He doesn’t have one. “He’s never had a credit card, but he’s never owed any money,” says Janice. She comments on his philosophy, one stemming from a mentality of “if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.” And of course, cash reigns supreme. “When we get the bill, we pay it,” Janice notes.

But that lack of credit didn’t stop Leo from buying the town’s hardware store when it went up for sale in December 2014. “I hated to see it close,” he remarks. “I was afraid that somebody would close it and use it as a warehouse or something.” So instead of letting that happen, Leo bought the business and gave the day-to-day operations over to his great-nephew.

Perhaps tied to his own debt-free mantra, Leo’s words of advice to his great-nephew – or anyone starting a business – are simple. “I would tell ‘em to not sell on credit,” he says. “I don’t care how bad they plea for it or anything else, just tell them that you’re not a lending institution. That’s what the banks are for.” Leo’s learned that the hard way. He sold on credit for many of the dry good store’s existence, resulting in drawers full of notes that haven’t been paid. “You can sell to what you call your best friends or people you think there’s nothing wrong with,” says Leo matter-of-factly. “Half of them won’t pay you.”

Besides that, Leo says quality assurance is the most important thing to keep in mind when running a business. “Guarantee the product,” he says. “If you don’t like it, bring it back.”

“And I always thought that was kind of complimentary,” says Leo, pride in his voice. “If Rader’s don’t have it, we don’t need it.” 

Looking back at his nearly 60 years of ownership, Leo recalls moments that stick out in his memory. One of those times was when a lady noted that if the store didn’t have an item, she didn’t need it. “And I always thought that was kind of complimentary,” says Leo, pride in his voice. “If Rader’s don’t have it, we don’t need it.”

Want to shop?
Rader’s (727 Main St., Lockwood; 417-232-4737) is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. You can also click here to visit them on Facebook.

3 thoughts on “Leo Rader, the dry-goods king, still reigns supreme at 89 years old

  1. Mr . Rader, great article featuring you and your life long business. Thanks Kellie for sharing it on FB.
    My grandparents owned a men’s clothing store in Centralia, MO called Cox’s. I was raised helping in the store. I know exactly what you mean about being a small store and not being able to carry an item any longer because you had to buy a certain quantity.
    We have been friends with Randy/Marcia and their girls/families since 1980. We live the family stories.
    Congratulations for your hard work and serving your community through your store.

  2. I love the store! I just picked up a pair of 501s for $35. Incredible! So glad Leo had kept main street alive.

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