A liquidation sale at the Libertyville Saddle Shop, a mainstay in equestrian circles for 50 years, began Thursday and the place was bursting with invited customers.
Before the doors opened, the line stretched the length of the familiar building on Peterson Road. Within an hour or so, staffers scurried for fans to dissipate the heat generated by the wall-to-wall crowd.
Some came for bargains, while others found a bit of nostalgia.
"I love the smell," Dawn McNulty said, taking in the scent of new leather. "It was fun to come here when I was a kid." She first visited with her dad, Bill Mark, 40 years ago.
"It was about the only Western store and saddle shop in this area. The owner had about everything you wanted," said Mark, a retired blacksmith, who ran a horseshoeing business in Antioch.
The sale, which is expected to last three months, signals the end of the Martin family's involvement. The interior will be renovated and a new owner will lease the space for an equestrian oriented store.
"We just decided to retire from the retail business. We've been here since 1960," said Steve Martin, who has tended to day-to-day operations since his father, Jack, retired about two years ago.
"After 50 years, we've got a lot of inventory and zero debt. That's why we're attractive to a lot of companies."
His grandfather, Homer, was a native of West Virginia, who ran an auto parts and junk yard next door.
"My aunt liked to ride horses and show horses. There was nowhere around her to get good tack (horse equipment)," so his grandfather founded the business, Martin said.
Jack Martin, a well known businessman, property owner and political activist joined the family venture after returning from a stint in the U.S. Army in the mid-1960s.
With its vast open spaces, Lake County had among the highest per capita population of horses in the country, Steve Martin said. The Saddle Shop grew from 2,000 square feet to 31,000 square feet with five additions. The holdings also include a 60,000-square-foot distribution center the family opened in 1990. He estimated the mailing list at nearly 450,000.
"We're nationwide and this is 50 years. For a lot of years, we were the dominant player in the market," Martin said.
He recalled the time a few years ago that the chief financial officer, an investment banker and a market strategist from a major pet store chain paid a visit.
"They came in out of the blue and said, `We'd like to buy you,'" according to Martin. "We turned them down."
Known for its size and variety, the Saddle Shop has focused on the everyday rider. But the horse population has been dropping, Mark said.
"The parking lot has been empty a lot when you go by the last few years," McNulty added.
Agreements have been signed and a lease is being finalized.
Martin said he will concentrate on managing the family's 200,000 square feet of rental properties in the immediate area.
"We're burned out on the retail business," he said.