Still going strong: Two niche shops have been thriving for decades in Fort Wayne

Small businesses are perhaps most affected by economic downturns, but some locally-owned, niche enterprises have shown they have the chops to survive uncertain times.

So what’s it like to be a part of the fabric of the community for several decades weathering the ups and downs of downtown's success? The owners of Stoner’s Funstore and Hyde Brothers Booksellers, respectively, share the secrets of their longevity.

Stoner’s Funstore, a third-generation costume and party business located at 712 S. Harrison St., recently celebrated its 70th anniversary. While downtown has evolved a great deal over seven decades, the shop's business model has remained relatively unchanged.

It’s all about encouraging light-hearted fun through magic tricks, costumes, gag gifts and more, says Dick Stoner, the current patriarch.

Dick Stoner has been a magician for more than 70 years.

Stoner is an award-winning magician and a bit of a local celebrity in Fort Wayne. He first made a name for himself doing entertainment at trade shows in Las Vegas.

“I would build a crowd in a person's booth and inform them about their products and services,” he says. “And they paid a lot of money to draw attention, basically.”

But before he was famous, he was the son of a magician. He caught the magic bug at a young age, landing his first gig as an adolescent. His father later came to own what would become Stoner’s Funstore. After a stint in the Army, Dick came back to work in the family business. Initially, he says they focused on jokes and gag gifts, but they later realized there was an opportunity to enter another market. 

“We started out with an inventory of rental costumes and later bought out all the costumes from a big rental costume company,” Stoner says. “Today, we have about 20,000 rental costumes.”

Stoner's recently celebrated 70 years in downtown Fort Wayne.

They do a lot of business with schools looking for costumes for productions, he adds.

In other words, Stoner’s has cornered the brick-and-mortar costume, magic trick, and novelty markets. In fact, Stoner believes his store is the only of its kind in the state. He attributes the store’s success to a few constants in human nature.

“People still like to have fun, and we still have people coming in and buying jokes and funny things,” he says.

While tapping into these niche markets has served them well, he’s aware that his business is a bit of an outlier as far as downtown is concerned.

“Originally, when we first opened, downtown was bustling,” he says. “There were stores like Wolf and Dessauer and Patterson-Fletcher down here. And then over the years, they started moving out to the shopping centers, and before long, there were hardly any businesses downtown anymore.”

While some may wonder if downtown will ever regain its full momentum, Stoner says he’s optimistic about the future. According to a conversation he had with Mayor Tom Henry, as many as 5,000 people will live downtown in coming months and years as new developments open. That could translate into more foot traffic into the store and boost other downtown businesses at the same time, he says.

The Historic Wells Street Corridor is the city's second-oldest shopping district.Speaking of foot traffic, Hyde Brothers Booksellers on Wells Street is a business that thrives on its location in a walkable urban corridor. The store, located at at 1428 Well St., sells all genres of used books and is jam-packed with more than 150,000 titles.

The owner Sam Hyde says his store is a destination in itself. 

“We have a steady stream of customers who come from about a 50-mile radius he says. In fact, when people search for 'the most popular bookstore' or 'best bookstore' we pop up on Google, which is a great thing.”

Hyde Brothers has been a fixture of the Wells Street business community for nearly 30 years.
But like Stoner, Hyde says he’s seen his fair share of businesses on Wells Street shutter since he first opened in 1992. Even so, the resurgence of Wells Street and its surrounding neighborhoods with Riverfront development bodes well. Hop River Brewing Company is a great example.

“We've done some cooperative things with them on-premise here,” Hyde explains. "So, you know, there's a synergy if you can work with local businesses.”

To that end, he says a grassroots approach resonates most with his customer base. People call on him to advertise, but it's not the right fit because his target audience is so diverse: Basically, anyone who enjoys reading.

Hyde Brothers is a popular regional destination for readers of all ages.
So what’s on the nightstand of this purveyor of used books?

“I just finished an immense science fiction book,” he says. “I went back to my roots of my childhood when I read nothing but science fiction by choice."

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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