VIROQUA — It has been 40 years since Gene Gabrysiak opened Mister G’s apparel and shoe store at 120 N. Main St. in downtown Viroqua. And it has been nearly 46 years since he opened the first of his three locations, in Richland Center.
But Gabrysiak, who also is Viola village president, has no plans to retire. “I’m too young for that,” he explained with a smile. “I’m only 73.”
Gabrysiak, who has been village president for 18 years, has seen plenty of other independent apparel and shoe stores close in the region during his more than four decades in the business.
“When I came to Viroqua, there were four other shoe stores,” he said. “Slowly they all closed. As (owners) got older, they had trouble finding buyers” to continue the stores.
“Luckily, we’ve survived,” Gabrysiak said of his stores. “Because of our service, staff and selection.”
Another reason is he has belonged to buying cooperatives since 1979. He now belongs to two of the co-ops, which provides him with access to discounts, special deals and marketing assistance.
Gabrysiak said his stores carry better brands of clothing and shoes. “And I’ve always been blessed with very good employees,” he said.
His three stores — in Viroqua, Richland Center and Waupaca — sell apparel for men and women; sell shoes for men, women and children; and rent tuxedos. The Waupaca store also sells fabric and craft supplies.
Gabrysiak has five employees at his Viroqua store. Most of its customers live within 20 miles of Viroqua, but some come from farther away, including La Crosse. “For work shoes, we pull from a large area,” Gabrysiak said.
A few weeks ago, Viroqua Chamber Main Street gave Gabrysiak and his store its Cornerstone Business award for hard work, commitment to excellence and dedication to the community.
Gabrysiak has seen many traditional stores close in downtown Viroqua in the past four decades. But in recent years, he also has seen specialty shops and other unique businesses open downtown.
The Wausau native earned a bachelor’s degree in English and history from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point before moving to Viola in 1965 to teach English at Kickapoo High School. He later earned a master’s degree in English education from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
During his undergraduate college days, Gabrysiak also worked at a shoe store in Wausau. After he became a teacher in Viola, one of the Wausau store’s suppliers told him that a Richland Center shoe store would be closing soon and asked whether Gabrysiak might be interested in going into the shoe business.
That conversation led Gabrysiak to open his first shoe store in August 1969 in Richland Center. “I taught school during the day and ran the store at night and on weekends,” he said. In 1972, he diversified by adding apparel to the store’s product lines.