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April 13, 2009

Grand Rapids Auto: An Introduction

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Christina Clusiau is a New York based photographer who has been returning to her hometown in Northern Minnesota to photograph and interview members and employees of her family’s auto dealership, in light of the economic crisis which has forced the car companies to ask for bailouts from the federal government. This is the first post of a BAGNewsOriginals series documenting daily life in one family-owned business.

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Grand Rapids is the county seat of rural Itasca County, pop. 8000, in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. It is the headwaters of the Mississippi river, and home to a thousand lakes. The region is known for its mining and timber, and excellent hunting and fishing.

Historically, the Iron Range was settled by many nationalities: Italians, Slovenes, Bohemians and Finns, to name just a few. They came from afar looking for a new life in America, and learned to survive the brutal frozen winters and baking summers. That meant back-breaking and dangerous work in the iron mines, and they developed a conservative, strong work ethic, saving a great deal of their income.

Tom Clusiau Sales and Rental Service Inc. was founded in 1957 by Arthur Francis (Bud) Clusiau, my great-grandfather and Arthur David Clusiau Sr., my grandfather. My father Tom started in the business with his dad David out of college, purchased it in 1990, and he and my mother Patricia both work full-time in the dealership.

Many of us coming of age in the ’90s, in northern Minnesota, had this idea that it was a place that you left, to go and find more exciting places brimming with success. At least this was my vision, and now I live many miles away. But whenever I return, I realize that there is much more than meets the eye, that life here is strong and rooted. Growing up, I didn’t have much concept of my family’s role as small business owners in our community. We never talked business at home, and my childhood was very active with sports and dance; my brother and I were supported in everything we did.

As I grew up, I saw that my parents worked very hard, took care of their employees and their families, their customers, and were well-liked. They believed in giving back on a large scale, and continually sponsored community events and organizations such as the Tall Timber Days festival, the county fair, high school bands, the YMCA, the United Way, as well as many academic initiatives.

We have been very fortunate and always felt secure. The current economic collapse and the failing auto companies not only threaten that security for us but also for the dealership’s 45 employees and their families. My family is still optimistic that the industry will “come back,” but they live day-to-day, to “just keep the doors open” a little longer until the situation improves.   

My dad has been through three other downturns in the automobile business and knows it will get better but the severity and the length of this recession is tough on sales, cash flow, employees and owners. But I have faith and believe in what they do, because they run a good business in a great community, and, as everyone hopes, the economy has always recovered whenever it’s been this way before.

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