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Gramma Polo retires ... at age 90! (unedited version)

Running the Polo Liquor Store has become a family endeavor. Charlotte (second from left) started the store with her husband, George, 65 years ago and retired only a month ago. Her son Richard (left) practically grew up there and helps out from time to time, and her granddaughter Jodi (right) and her fiancé Tom Romundstad are taking over as new owners. Wendy Johnson/Pine Journal1 / 5
The family submitted this photo of Gramma Polo from back in the late 1940's or early 1950s.2 / 5
The late George Polo took on many maintenance duties at the family liquor store, at the same time working construction and later running his own blacktop business. Contributed Photo3 / 5
George and Charlotte Polo bought a house in Scanlon (above) and opened it as the Polo Liquor Store in 1947 after rotating it to face the highway and replacing the gabled roof with a flat one.4 / 5
Richard Polo, son of Charlotte and the late George Polo, practically grew up at the family business, playing with the boys next door and swimming with friends in a pond they created by damming up the creek. Contributed Photo5 / 5

At the age of 90, Charlotte Polo was still working three 14-hour days a week at the family liquor store in Scanlon, staying up until midnight, and munching on chocolates whenever she felt like it. During the month or so since she retired, not a whole lot has changed - except that she's no longer putting in 14-hour days at the store.

"This is truly Super Mom," bragged her son, Richard.

The transition didn't come easily, however, since Charlotte was at the helm of the family business for 65 years. Richard had been telling her she should retire, but he didn't want to take the business over himself because he didn't want to spend 14 hours a day there. A liquor store owner from Duluth was interested in buying it, but Charlotte's granddaughter Jodi and her fiancé Tom Romundstad had other thoughts.

"I just couldn't see letting go of something that's been in our family this long," said Jodi.

In fact, Polo's Liquor Store is arguably the oldest single-family-owned liquor store in the state of Minnesota. It's understandable, then, that Charlotte would have a hard time letting go.

"I can't get used to being retired," she admitted. "I keep sending myself on a guilt trip. I have all this work to do at home, but I can't seem to get started on it."

Today, the spunky almost-91-year-old still lives in the Esko home she shared with her late husband, George, but she has turned the family liquor store over to Jodi and Tom.

"We needed some new, young blood here," commented Charlotte.

The new owners have renamed the establishment Gramma Polo's Bottle Shop, which Charlotte self-effacingly declares she's not all that happy about.

"It's a tribute to you," argued Richard. "You need to have a tribute."

"I don't need a tribute," said Charlotte. "I wouldn't even allow them to have a 90th birthday party for me."

Polo family members still gather frequently at the liquor store, and the friendly banter and affection among them is apparent to anyone who happens to walk through the door. Perhaps that's because most of them have pretty much grown up there.

"When I started running the liquor store and my husband would go to work out on the road for J.W. Craig Construction, I would take our son Richard with me to the liquor store," related Charlotte. "Archie Cameron lived next door and he had two boys, so the three of them would play out in the yard with their dump trucks."

Charlotte herself grew up in Cloquet, where her grandfather and his three sons ran a grocery store called Larson and Sons, located where Nelson Funeral Care now stands.

Her family home was two houses down from Garfield School, and Charlotte was the youngest of three children. She attended Garfield School and loved going to school there.

"It was great," she exclaimed. "We had this janitor, Mr. Lance, and living right next door we used to go and help him clean erasers at night. It was a great experience."

She liked mathematics the best and tackled higher algebra, geometry, and other math-related subjects with relish.

"Some of us girls would do the boys' homework for them, just to be able to remind them as they grew up, 'Remember who did your work for you!'" she said with a laugh.

She graduated from Cloquet High School in 1939, and six months later she and her girlfriend went away to nursing school in Chicago for three years. She came back to Cloquet and worked in special care nursing for a couple of years at the old Raiter Hospital and was still living with her parents when she met George Polo, a farm boy from Esko who owned the Rendezvous Bar in Scanlon.

She and George dated for a year and a half before marrying in 1944 at the home of the Zion Lutheran minister. They bought a house in Scanlon, located at the spot where nephew Marco Polo now operates his greenhouse, and that's where they raised their son, Richard.

The Rendezvous, located across the street from their home, burned down one day. The Polos then decided the bar business was not the thing for a married man to be doing, so he sold out his share and opened up Polo's Liquor at its present location in March 1947.

The structure that housed the liquor store was formerly a little house that faced toward the Golden Gate.

"We turned it around [so it faces Highway 45], and then we added on twice," said Charlotte.

George worked for J.W. Craig for the first nine years after the Polos started the liquor store, traveling all over Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

"Richard was just 2 years old at the time [we opened the liquor store]," recalled Charlotte, "I would put him in the back seat of the car after I locked up the liquor store, drive to Minneapolis, pick George up, wash clothes all day Sunday and then send him back."

It became a way of life for the Polos, however.

"We always found ways to have fun here," related Richard. "When we were kids we would pile up the beer cases and make forts out of them."

Richard's daughter, Jodi, who also spent much of her growing-up years in the family liquor store, recalls that by the time she came along, there were returnable bottles.

"We piled cardboard cases of returnable bottles up to the ceiling," she said. "We also used to have all sorts of little trinkets to play with, because a lot of times the beer salesmen would give us things to play with."

Richard recalls how, when he was12 or13 years old and his mother was working, he would go off to play with his friends around the neighborhood of the liquor store.

"There used to be two bridges on the road to Esko with a creek running between them," related Richard. "We would dam the culvert up with wooden boards and pack the edges with sod. The water would back up pretty deep, and we'd swim there all day long. My mom could never figure out why I was coming home clean all the time."

"The Pine Knot came and took pictures of them swimming in the pond, and that's how I found out!" said Charlotte with a wry grin.

Charlotte continued to run the store single-handedly for several years, before her husband finally decided to quit the job that had kept him out on the road for so long.

"I don't think he was home two weeks before he bought a paver and trucks and went into business for himself, called Northwest Blacktop," said Charlotte.

Charlotte was nonplussed by the challenges of running the store, however, putting in long days and working solo long into the evenings.

"I don't know how she did it," admitted Richard.

"My version was, once you're here, you might as well stay," responded Charlotte. "I never go to bed before midnight or 1 a.m. anyway."

"Even now, I can call her at 11 p.m. and not worry about waking her up!" said Jodi.

"I never sit still," explained Charlotte, "and I live on chocolate! I can remember when I was a kid, I wore out the seat of my bloomers and petticoats from fidgeting so much. At school, my report cards always said, 'Never sits still.'"

When she wasn't waiting on customers, she filled coolers, did the books and ran the two family businesses.

"Everybody has to have a job and a purpose, you know," Charlotte declared.

George helped out with building and maintenance at the store, a throwback to his years growing up on the family farm at the end of Polo Road in Esko.

"There wasn't anything that he couldn't do. He was a carpenter and a master of all trades," said Charlotte.

"That's because he grew up on a farm," explained Richard. "They're mechanics, they're electricians, they're veterinarians, they're horticulturists, they're pretty much everything."

Charlotte proved many times over that she was up to the challenges of running the liquor store on her own, including dealing with shoplifters.

"I think they were more scared of me!" said Charlotte with a chuckle. "One guy came in here and bought a big bottle of Captain Morgan rum and some wine, and I was going to start bagging it when he grabbed them in his arms and started running out. I came running around the corner and he pinned me against the wall when I tried to keep him from getting out. Then I moved just enough for him to get out and he dropped one of the wine bottles and then ran out and over to the Golden Gate. I called the police, but they never did catch him.

Another time, a drunk came into the store, picked up a bottle and then went into the bathroom. Charlotte could hear him trying to jam it into his pocket.

"When he came out of the bathroom," related Jodi, "she went over there, ripped his jacket open and pulled the bottle out!"

Another time a fellow came in wearing a long black coat and slipped a bottle of liquor into his pocket.

"I said to him, 'You going to pay for that bottle?'" Charlotte recalled. "He said, 'Bottle? What bottle?' so I said to him, 'The one you just put in your pocket!' Then I walked around the counter, grabbed it and put it back on the shelf.

"Once I had a guy open the front door and grab an 18-pack," she continued. "I ran out the front door just as he was putting it on the seat of his car. I said, 'Hey, do you want to come back in and pay for that?' He asked me, 'What do you mean?' and I said, 'I just saw you take an 18-pack!'"

And though Charlotte is somewhat slight of build, even at the age of 90, she remains in remarkably good shape.

"I've always said that the reason my mom is in the shape she's in is because when she comes here [to the liquor store] it's like going to an aerobics class," said Richard. "She's lifting cases, she's walking a lot and her mind is staying sharp from dealing with money. She's poetry in motion."

"You ought to lift one of those 30-packs!" Charlotte attested. "I call them gut busters."

And to what else does she owe her longevity?

"Chocolate - and junk food!" she said with a laugh.

"She doesn't eat anything healthy," agreed Jodi. "You put a salad in front of her and she won't eat it.'"

"Sometimes I'll have a cookie in the morning," said Charlotte, "and then at night I'll think to myself, 'Charlotte, what have you eaten today? I had a cookie!'"

About a month ago, she took a fall in the store, cracked her head open on the desk and "bled all over the place," Jodi related.

A customer agreed to take her to the hospital, and when she got there, they stapled her wound shut and she was back at work that same day.

"They wanted to do a CT scan on me to see if there might be a concussion," said Charlotte, "but I told them there was nothing up there to damage!"

In fact, the X-ray technician who worked on her remembered Charlotte from when she was there the year before with pneumonia.

"You don't forget my mother," said Richard. "She doesn't let you!"

Charlotte and George built a house in Esko in the mid-1970s, and George passed away 15 years ago. After that, Charlotte continued to run the liquor store.

In recent years, with the help of Richard and employee Marie Gustafson, 80 (whose parents once owned Engel's Tavern across the street), Charlotte was able to cut back to working three 10- to14-hour days a week up until a few weeks ago.

Over its many years in business, the Polos have generated a considerable number of long-time, repeat customers.

"Right now I have three and four generations coming here," said Charlotte. "It used to be that folks said, 'I remember coming in here with my dad,' and now I'm hearing, 'I remember coming in here with my grandpa.'"

The Polos have always kept a plastic container of suckers behind the counter to give children when they come in with their parents, and it's not unusual to have a customer remark, 'I remember getting suckers from you when I was a kid!'"

Sometimes, folks simply stop in to chat.

"If there's something new in their family, we discuss it when they come in," said Charlotte." I don't know if there are many stores left that do that."

"It's almost like being a bartender in a bar," added Tom, "with the stories that people come in and tell you. You really get a sense of what they're all about."

The future remains bright for the Polo family and their store. Jodi, who works in maintenance for St. Louis County, and Tom, who retired from the St. Louis County Property Management Department after working as a contract administrator and special projects manager, most recently with energy reduction and conservation projects, have a lot of creative ideas to update the store and its operation.

While Charlotte used to keep a handwritten list taped to the cash register telling what sorts of wine were dry and which were sweet, Tom is planning to set up a laptop computer at the front counter with the business's link to a site that will tell you about the different types of wine, what they taste like and how to pair them with food.

Tom would like to form a business association with the neighborhood businesses to access grants and loans to help upgrade whatever businesses are interested in it and talk about working together on joint promotions and advertising.

In addition, Tom and Jodi plan to upgrade the liquor store itself with more energy-efficient lighting, coolers, and signage, and they hope to augment the Farmers Market that takes place throughout the summer in their adjacent parking lot with flea market vendors, music and updated signage.

Charlotte is happy to see the store is enjoying a new lease on life, and she will undoubtedly continue to be a frequent visitor to the store, helping out behind the counter from time to time.

"She's so popular with our customers, we should have a Charlotte Polo Day every Tuesday afternoon," suggested Richard, "with Charlotte appearing from 2 to 5!"

"We've even been thinking about having a Charlotte Polo special every so often," added Tom.

"It had better be chocolate!" declared Ch