MILWAUKEE — Customers, volunteers and longtime supporters of the Marian Center are praying.
They are hoping a new owner comes forward so this longtime Catholic bookstore on Milwaukee’s West Side can remain open. The business has been put up for sale by a non-profit affiliate of Miles Jesu, a Chicago-based organization that promotes consecrated life for lay people.
If a deal cannot be struck by the end of May, the store will liquidate its merchandise and close its doors, according to its manager.
“Some people are coming in and stocking up,” said Darlene Fisher. “One lady bought $250 worth of items and said, ‘I don’t want to miss out.’ ”
Miles Jesu has owned the business for six years, but wants to sell it in order to concentrate on its ministries in Chicago. A letter written by the center’s president, Maire Duggan, pleading for a new owner to step forward has been circulating among Milwaukee-area parishes and Marian Center customers since February.
On Tuesday, April 26, Duggan remained optimistic.
“It needs somebody from Milwaukee to pour themselves into it,” said Duggan. “We have a couple of very interested parties.”
Marian Center rents four adjoining storefronts at 3712 N. 92nd St. Among its huge variety of merchandise are books (including Spanish-language and large-print selections), music, medals, statues and jewelry. Colorful rosaries hang from pegs, and racks are devoted to holy cards and prayer materials.
On Holy Thursday afternoon, Fisher and two cashiers rang up sales steadily. The store is the go-to source for first Communion and confirmation mementos, several customers said.
“It’s the only place in the area that sells Communion banner kits,” said Sarah Hale, who came from Oak Creek with her three children to shop. “I looked online, but I’d much rather spend my money locally.”
Stephen DeGuire of Mequon stopped in for a first Communion gift.
“It’s the quintessential Catholic gift shop,” he said. “My family has been shopping here as long as it’s been here. It would be a big loss if they would close.”
Phil and Mary Lou Dreis, a Brookfield couple who had been inspired by visiting Medjugorje, opened the Marian Center in 1988. In 2005, they gifted the store to Miles Jesu. Michael Groark was its general manager for nearly three years, starting in early 2006.
“I’m sure in its early years, the Marian Center made no money,” said Groark. “Mary Lou was a gifted salesperson, and she did turn it into a very profitable enterprise for many, many years.
“When I was there, we enjoyed the best sales years that the Marian Center ever had, but when the economy (declined), people started cutting out things and apparently books and gifts were one of them.”
Groark said he analyzed the profit and loss statements, and decided in late 2008 that the Marian Center could no longer afford to pay him.
“I felt it was best that I find other employment,” he said. “I love the Marian Center, and I always had a wonderful relationship with Miles Jesu, and Phil and Mary Lou Dreis were like another set of parents to me.”
Phil Dreis died in 2008 and Mary Lou passed away last May 29. Supporters are finding it meaningful that the store needs a buyer by May 30, according to Fisher. Photos of the Dreises are displayed in the Marian Center’s prayer room, where customers and staff pray the novena and chaplet to the Divine Mercy daily at 3 p.m.
“People just wander in and pray here. They come in with their stories,” said Fisher, her voice choking with emotion. “People know they can talk to people here, maybe say things they could never even tell their own families.”
Fisher, who has worked at the Marian Center for 13 years, recently became its paid, full-time manager due to another worker’s departure. Generally, two volunteers are also on duty.
The biggest challenge to keeping the Marian Center going is making parishes and Catholic schools more aware of the store, Groark said.
“Capital will solve a lot of problems temporarily, but it has to be sustainable,” he added. “The only way it’s going to be sustainable is to have a good, solid marketing program in place so you have repeat customers. That’s Retail 101.”
Among Marian Center’s occasional customers are Mary Kay Lammers of Mukwonago and Kimberly Paulson of Mequon.
“I would miss it, and I think that neighborhood would miss it,” said Lammers. “The right people probably could make it work.”
Paulson, who teaches at Aquinas Academy in Menomonee Falls, shops at the Marian Center for items for her classroom and for gifts, such as rosaries that she tucks into Easter baskets.
“Things I didn’t even know existed are here,” she said. “Hopefully, they’ll find a buyer.”
Some customers have told Fisher the store might be more successful in a different location such as Waukesha or Grafton, “but we’re right in the middle” of the metro area, she countered.
Many of the store’s shelves still are brimming with goods. However, given the Marian Center’s uncertain future, Fisher no longer is ordering new merchandise, and there are a substantial number of items marked down to half-price.
“We are praying continuously in our chapel here,” said Duggan. “I think it will be sold and it will continue. We’re deter