Happy Birthday, Truckers

what started as a “hippie” venture is now 40 years strong

Kinzy Janssen, photos by Andrea Paulseth

 
Owner Steve Reuter started Truckers Union 40 years ago. The shop, selling everything from pipes to greeting cards, has remained in its current location (413 Water Street) since 1980.

As a long-haired 22 year-old in 1970, Steve Reuter was struck by the simple kindness of a stranger’s “hello” as he walked throughout Eau Claire. He would later become the longest continuous owner of a business on Water Street – the street that offered a hello.

    “I started out as one of the youngest business owners on the street. Now I’m one of the old guys,” said Reuter.

    In May of 1970, Reuter, his sister, and his sister’s husband found a 10-by-22-foot space to rent on Bellinger Street, setting the scene for Happy Products, the debut version of what is now Truckers Union.

    Though Reuter attended UW-Madison and UW-Stout, eventually earning a degree in business, he says neither school offered classes specifically in entrepreneurship. He was truly striking out in new territory.

“We borrowed money from everyone we could … friends … relatives … to get off the ground. I had $2,000, my sister had $2,000, we borrowed $5,000, and finally Community State Bank gave us a loan,” he said.

    To Reuter, who had been the target of dirty looks in larger, mainstream stores such as Kmart, it was important to provide a tight-knit place where “hippies” could buy a pipe without being judged. Reuter’s career path also reflected his self-understanding. “I had to do something on my own,” he said. “I knew I wouldn’t be happy working for someone else.”

    Modeled after friends’ businesses in Oshkosh and Minneapolis, the original store carried posters, candles, incense, pipes, and tapestries. After the court battles of the 90’s, the state’s power to enforce an anti-paraphernalia law fizzled out.  Pipes are still legal to posses, as long as they aren’t sullied with illegal substances.

    In June of 1971, a spot opened up in prime territory – also known as Water Street – where Jeff & Jim’s now serves pizza.
 

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