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John Lamb, Published December 18 2012

Lamb: Remembering beloved, bygone bargain stores

FARGO – The holidays are a time to gather with friends and family and remember those no longer with us.

For me, that includes old haunts. I’m not just talking about the bars I used to frequent, though those morning walks to pick up my car at Ralph’s are a missed part of my weekly exercise routine.

I’m thinking of other places packed with holiday cheer, places I went to tap into a festive mood without feeling totally tapped out. Places like Archie’s and Kiefer’s and other bargain stores of yore.

Before someone starts groaning about the creeping commercialization of Christmas and how we don’t mark the true meaning of the day, let me point out that I’m neither a virgin, nor built for childbearing, and if I was, I still wouldn't honor the day by giving birth in a manger surrounded by animals. That seems like the most authentic way to honor the birth of Christ, but that was so 2045 years ago.

When it comes to Christmas, I try to embody that other merry.

A big part of what gets me in the mood is giving gifts. Actually, getting gifts is a bigger kick, but I don’t mean receiving them. I mean finding something someone will get a kick from.

For me, Christmas is a year-round journey, picking up things that strike my fancy or tickle my funny bone or could needle someone in just the right way.

Anyone can shop from a Christmas list, but if you have a little bit of holiday elf in yourself, the real thrill is in the unexpected find. Sometimes it’s hidden on the lower shelves of a store, or the bargain rack in back. Other times it’s at a flea market or a yard sale.

A decade ago, places like Bargains (previously and better known as Archie’s) and Kiefer’s were havens for odd treasure-hunters.

Growing up, I always thought Archie’s was a thrill. I remember a large machine gun hanging from the ceiling. I had no need for a gun then or now, but you have to admit, it’s a heck of a conversation piece as far as décor goes.

What was on the shelves was no less remarkable. It was a hodge-podge of 1970s home remnants and ’80s and ’90s pop culture. Where else could you find vintage kitchen ware, a “Beverly Hills 90210” night shirt, an illustrated timeline poster of all the popes and costumes from the set of Elvis movies and “Waterworld”?

I bought my godson his first black leather biker jacket there. I even have a photo to prove it, which is good, because his mom insists it was “lost” before it could be handed down to his brothers.

Kiefer’s was more contemporary and a bit more focused, but the price was always right and the selection was full of surprises.

Remember the year the store unloaded a truck of fancy food stuffs? There were jars of jams, sauces, salsas and syrups, candies, cookies, crackers of all sorts, pastas and pancake mixes. And that was just on the main floor. It was like Martha Stewart’s pantry at Sandra Lee prices.

It was one-stop gift-giving that year, as the store also had a great selection of festive Terry Redlin tins and a variety of gift boxes. Of course there was also wrapping paper and I took advantage of a close-out on off-register rolls. Raccoons playing with presents never looked as scary as when their eyes floated away from their heads. It was a gift that kept on giving, especially to those I slipped 3-D glasses as a stocking stuffer.

Alas, those spots are gone. After years of “going-out-of-business” sales, Archie’s/Bargains closed in 2004 and the memorable red and gold metal building was leveled in 2008, the same year Kiefer’s Big Value shut its doors.

Gone, but not forgotten. Kiefer’s turned me on to a line of prepackaged goods I can find, though nowhere near the discount I claimed. And I still have a couple of the pope posters (popesters?) at home.

And I hold out hope that if I ever have a child – or more accurately, as I explained, father a child – I hope a black leather biker jacket will return to swaddle the child. And if that jacket is wrapped in off-register Christmas paper, all the better.