ARLEE — For the first time in 30 years, Arlee isn’t going to be the place where lovers of licorice gather.
Tony Hoyt has already felt their anguish.
“People have lately been coming in here daily asking me if it’s true,” he said, as he leans back against the countertop filled with jars of exotic licorices from Italy, Germany and Holland. “They tell me I can’t do that. ‘What are we going to do once you’re gone?’ they ask.”
This Saturday, Tony and Michelle Hoyt will officially close the Hummingbird.
The small store with its signs advertising 50 or 60 different varieties of licorice and other sweets and novelties has become something of an icon for many Montanans and those just passing through. Once inside, they peruse the novelties, cards and other interesting sweets that are nearly impossible to find anywhere else.
But it’s the licorice that keeps them coming back.
United Airlines Magazine included Hummingbird Toys and Treats in an article last month on how to spend three perfect days in Montana.
“During the whole month of August, we had people coming in here with a copy of the magazine in their hands,” Hoyt said. “This place has always had a way of drawing people in and bringing them back.”
The idea that a candy shop could survive in a town of 700 was hatched years before Hoyt made the decision to give it a try. He was attending the University of Montana and had been hired to put a shake roof on the building that used to house the town’s grocery store. During those days pounding nails, Hoyt noticed that the community’s children flocked into the store at noon and left packing all varieties of sweets.
“I never forgot that,” he said. “It made me wonder if the town would support a candy and toy store.”
A veteran of two tours with the Peace Corps — one in Liberia and the other in Guatemala — Hoyt learned about retail while managing an eclectic Missoula shop back in 1980s called the Joint Effort. After he and the owner of that place didn’t exactly see eye to eye on the store’s management, Hoyt decided to strike out on his own.
“When I told him what I was going to do, he said, ‘Tony, I’ll give you a month,’” Hoyt said. “What people don’t realize is the large amount of traffic that goes by here, especially in the summertime. Everything that people want to see in Montana is right up this road.”
“You have the Peace Garden (Garden of 1,000 Buddhas), the Bison Range, Flathead Lake and Glacier Park,” he said. “To get there from I-90, you have to drive right by here.”
While other stores have come and gone and their owner’s names long forgotten, the Hummingbird has survived downturns in the economy and a highway project that diverted half of the traffic away from the town’s main street.
Over the years, Hoyt put that initial experience in retail to work. He made sure his signs were bright enough to catch the eye and were placed in just the right spots to give travelers time to investigate this interesting little store. Once people stepped inside, Hoyt greeted them with a smile and suggestions on what they should see and which way they should go.
Many became steady customers.
Some would stop on their way headed one direction to purchase licorice for people they were going to see and then they’d stop again on their way back to stock up for themselves and their neighbors.
“I’ve met some of the most fascinating people along the way,” he said. “I discovered that they remembered this place. It made an impression.”
Last year, Hoyt had stopped at the Canadian border on his way to Waterton. The guard asked him where he was from. Hoyt replied, “Arlee.”
That’s the town with the licorice store, said the guard.
So when Hoyt returned on a later date, fortune had it that the same guard happened to be on duty.
“I reached over and grabbed a bag filled with licorice,” Hoyt said. “I told him, ‘Here, you go. Here’s your bag of licorice.’ That was so much fun knowing that he had remembered that Arlee was the place with the licorice store.’”
There will be a hole in the town’s fabric when it closes for the last time.
Hoyt had hoped that someone would buy the store and carry on its tradition.
“I thought maybe some couple would give it a try,” he said. “We had done so well. We raised our three kids. They all learned about retail while working here … but the people who really wanted it didn’t have the equity to make it work financially. I’ve been kind of amazed that it didn’t sell.”
After Saturday, the couple will open one last time on Oct. 6 and 7 for a clearance sale.
“I’m going to miss my customers,” the 73-year-old Hoyt said. “But it’s time for us to move on. We had a great run, but now it’s over.”