Havre Daily News
The memories Mel and Judi Gomke have collected during the last 18 years won't be easy to put behind them when they lock the door of their mom-and-pop grocery store for the last time at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Nor will it be easy for the faithful neighborhood customers of Mel's Food on the south end of Fifth Avenue in Havre.
“What are we going to do without them?” said Sandy Anderson, who owns Box Cars with her husband, Craig, and is a regular at Mel's. “Everybody feels that way.”
After the Gomkes announced in December that they were closing the store, Anderson had plenty of time to think about what the couple and their store meant to her. Then she decided what to do about it. She got on the phone and called Janie Hedstrom, a Havre High School business instructor who filled in at the store when the Gomkes needed help.
Together they planned a party for the Gomkes.
“We picked the date and decided to keep it really simple,” Anderson said. “Mel knew about it but we tried to keep it a surprise for Judi.”
As planned, Judi read about it in the paper. A small notice of the party was printed in the About Town section of last Friday's Havre Daily News, and the turnout for Sunday's party was what they had hoped for. The congregation from the Kremlin church where the Gomkes are members even sent a large bouquet of flowers.
“Everyone didn't come all at once,” Anderson said. “There was always someone there.”
Anderson said some families brought their younger children and encouraged them to scout around the store. “Little kids were running throughout the store, and Mel and Judi were just sitting there. Janie ran the till that day so Mel and Judi didn't have to get up.” Anderson said the store didn't just mean groceries to the customers.
“If someone just wanted to visit, they'd go in and have coffee,” Anderson said. “(Judi) is the best joke teller in the world, and they're always funny.
“And if you wanted an opinion, you'd just go in and sit down,” she added. “I did that sometimes. She was consoling.”
Hedstrom agreed that the store's value went beyond the nearby availability of groceries.
“Judi was always good for recipes, advice,” Hedstrom said. “Whenever I had problems, she was a great sounding board. She was like a second mom to me.
“I always looked forward to giving Mel a hard time,” Hedstrom added. “I'm really going to miss them.”
The party was scheduled to run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Guests continued to show up until about 4.
Visitors included neighbors, customers and people from up the Hi-Line.
“I know there have been people coming in all week, sharing lunch with them and having a good time,” Hedstrom said Thursday night after working a shift at Mel's. “I worked tonight for a little while and people were coming and saying, ‘I just can't believe it.'”
The Gomkes started in the grocery business when they opened Mel's Food in Kremlin in July 1966. After nearly 21 years at that location, they bought the former Pierson's Parkway building at 1605 Fifth Ave.
They closed the Kremlin store on Halloween in 1987. After a couple of months of remodeling, they opened the Havre store on Dec. 18. They continued to live in Kremlin, driving the 20 miles daily to open the store.
Hedstrom said Judi enjoyed having children in the store.
“She said she's going to miss the kids,” Hedstrom said. “When Judi worked with young kids who would come into the store, she would teach them etiquette lessons, to say please and thank you. She worked really well with children.”
Mel and Judi both said they have enjoyed watching the children grow up and bring their children to the store.
Rita Munson, whose daughter Angie worked at the store for a year, visited Judi at the store Thursday morning.
“She comes in every once in awhile to update me on Angie,” Judi said.
Angie is working on a chemistry degree at Western Washington University and plans a career in police pathology, her mother told Judi.
Another longtime acquaintance visited the store Thursday morning to buy groceries. As Mel helped her locate items in the store and put them in her shopping cart, Dee Heltne, a former Havre High School English teacher, took a moment to talk about what the store meant to her.
“I think it's nice to have in the neighborhood,” Heltne said. “It's so handy, and they're welcoming people and help find things for you.”
“I still call her Mrs. Grodahl,” Judi said as they talked. “I had her in high school.”
The Gomkes began dating while Judi was still in high school and were married after she graduated in 1963. Mel is a 1960 graduate of Kremlin High School.
Over the years, the Gomkes have devoted much of their free time to their community.
Mel was the chief of the Kremlin Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, sat on the Kremlin Water Board, chaired the church board and was woodworking leader for 4-H when their children were young. He has been on the Hill County Foundation Board for many years and is in his fifth year on the Hill County Park Board. He was on the committee that worked to get the Bullhook Clinic up and running in the Hill County Courthouse Annex.
Judi also took a strong interest in their church, Kremlin United Methodist Church. “We're a small church family, and we realize how much we need each other,” she said.
She has also served on the board of United Way of Hill County, was a 4-H leader and served on the Hill County 4-H Foundation for awhile.
But it was domestic abuse prevention that really grabbed her interest and energies. She and Sharon Pollington, also of Kremlin, started Hi-Line Help for Abuse Victims in 1979.
“Then the only program in the state was in Great Falls and the only shelter between Minneapolis and Seattle was in Great Falls,” she said. “We served from Poplar to Browning in the early days.”
She said she got involved because of children.
“Children, that's why I started with domestic violence, because I didn't think they needed to be raised that way,” she said. “The boys become violent and the girls become submissive. It's learned behavior.”
But it's their little stores in Kremlin and Havre the Gomkes will probably be best remembered for.
“It was always a nice, convenient store,” said Kevin Shortell, a longtime customer of the Havre store. “Like the old neighborhood store we grew up with, you could go in there with your sweat pants on. They were always friendly and had a joke, and you got the gossip and you'd see a lot of your neighbors. Everybody was hoping they wouldn't close down.”
Mel said he wasn't happy about closing the store, either. But health problems, like Judi's bad knees, are slowing them down, and it's time for him and Judi to retire, they said.
“Time doesn't stop for anybody,” Mel said. “It's time for somebody (else) to come. We hoped it would be a grocery store.
“If we were 10 years younger, we'd still be here.”
They may be retiring, but the Gomkes have no plans of taking to their rocking chairs just yet.
Mel still sits on the park board and has numerous jobs he wants to complete in the old store in Kremlin, which is attached to their home, and their cabin in Beaver Creek Park.
“I'm remodeling the old store into a rec room in Kremlin,” Mel said, “and what used to be the U.S. Post Office I'm turning into an exercise room.” Both will be for the Gomkes' personal use.
Mel has kept a log of the days he's spent at the cabin and it averages near 100 a year. He spent 184 days at the cabin in 1998.
“I'm going to be there a lot now, fishing and working in the yard,” he said.