Almost nine decades after her in-laws opened the business that became Rieger Medical Supply – and two years after her husband, who ran it, died – Karin Rieger has decided to close the store.
“A family business doesn’t do well without a family,” she says.
The last day of operation is June 30.
“It is with a great deal of sadness to close something like this, but times change,” says Rieger, 84.
Herbert Rieger, a pharmacist, and his wife, Elizabeth, opened the business in 1927 at Douglas and Sycamore where Hatman Jack’s Wichita Hat Works is now.
“In those days, anything worth doing was only worth doing downtown,” Karin Rieger says.
She says the store’s early years were “right when the Great Depression was roaring … but they hung on.”
“They were there for years and years,” Rieger says. “They also had a soda fountain down there.”
By the 1950s, the business moved more and more into medical supply sales.
“Medical supplies were becoming more sophisticated,” Rieger says. “There was more of a market for medical supplies than for pharmacy.”
When Herbert Rieger died in 1962, Elizabeth Rieger ran the store and moved it to Central Avenue just west of Hillside at the same intersection as Wesley Medical Center.
“She was quite a businesswoman,” Rieger says.
Karin Rieger and her husband, Ernest, purchased the business after Elizabeth Rieger’s death in 1980.
Ernest Rieger, a general surgeon, retired from practicing in 1984 and took over day-to-day operations at the store.
“My husband was very proud of the business,” Rieger says.
“It kept us more worried, but it kept us younger,” she says. “You always worry when you have a business. That’s what keeps you on edge to be good. That’s what keeps you engaged.”
Her children and others in the family worked in the business over the years cleaning wheelchairs – and playing on them.
“The kids would just chase each other up and down the aisles,” Rieger says. “Several generations have done that.”
Through the years, the Riegers purchased six adjacent parcels piece by piece along Central as the business grew.
“My husband was very big on you can’t sell it if you don’t have it,” Rieger says of keeping ample stock. “That’s what kept us going.”
The business grew increasingly more challenging as the years went on for several reasons.
“The fact is, it is difficult for a small business,” Rieger says.
There’s Internet competition and “massive government regulations” that Rieger says a larger business might be able to weather better.
“I don’t mean to be whiny, but it is the truth.”
Rieger says the business gave her and her husband a reason to get up in the morning.
“It was never a golden gussie, but it kept us busy.”
Sixteen years ago, Ernest Rieger had a stroke.
“It has been kind of difficult ever since,” Rieger says. She says her husband continued to have fun at the store, though.
“He could still boss people around even on his scooter.”
Rieger has a contract to sell her property, but she did not attempt to sell the business.
“The business is so tied to that particular location,” Rieger says.
She says customers come from all kinds of small towns around Kansas, some of “the names of which I’ve never even heard of.”
“It’s been an interesting business because we’ve met so many people. Young. Old. Sooner or later they wander through our doors.”
The store sells things such as canes, stethoscopes, oximeters and lift chairs.
“We actually really sell the whole gamut – except oxygen,” Rieger says. “We would actually educate and train our patients how to use the equipment.”
Rieger is selling some items at reduced prices but plans to donate the bulk of the store to a veterans’ organization to distribute items locally and nationally “because we need to take care of our veterans.”
“It’ll come to good use.”
Rieger says she and her family have been grateful to serve people needing supplies.
“The opportunity to help them has really been a big … focus for our family,” she says. “This has been our privilege.”