Kent Morrison (right) owns and operates a no frills automotive repair shop at one end of Overbrook's main drag. His son Brent (left) also works at the shop.

Buying a small-town business and hanging on for dear life

Kent Morrison believed God was directing him to move his family from the hurly-burly of Houston, Texas, to the solace of a spiritual community with 1,000 people.

“I’d never heard of this town ever,” says Morrison, leaning on the kitchen counter of the house they bought here next to a long-abandoned ice cream stand.

He wanted to run his own auto-repair shop, the only one in Overbrook.

I wanted to know why. Why on earth?

From the moment I picked Overbrook as the place to look at 21st-century life in a small town, the citizenry made clear that nobody gets rich anymore running a business here.

Quite often, you struggle and go broke.

Morrison believed the economics were on his side. “We figured that in a one-horse town, it made sense to buy the only horse,” he says.

He’s come to learn, however, that business in a community this size runs by a different set of rules.

For starters, a bad growing season can take a year to overcome. When farmers don’t spend, everybody hurts.

And the supplies you need to keep a business going may be a county away.

As for customer service, you better mean it. Word of one unhappy patron, one rude employee or a billing error can spread through a little town like the flu.

Even the most established entrepreneur needs to face up to the math, which is all against small-town retailers.

“Fewer farmers,” said University of Nevada sociologist Richard Davies, author of “Main Street Blues: The Decline of Small-Town America.” “Not enough people. And they can’t compete with the chains on price. It’s all that.”

But Morrison had grown tired working for others in the city. He and his wife, Diane, sought peace, the country life, stability for their kids.

Their decision to move here started with prayer and was confirmed in subtle signals that the couple received back in Texas, where Diane, a native Kansan, was pink-slipped.

“When God speaks,” Kent tells me, “people who live by faith try to listen.”

Buy the Wrench Benders shop in Overbrook, he heard God whisper.

Or so he thought.

“I’ve said it about a thousand times, at least, since making the move” in late 2011, he chuckles.

“Did I have my radio tuned to the wrong channel?”

Cliff O'Bryhim, who owns the only grocery store in Overbrook, does everything, including cut steaks.

The Thriftway

Across the road from Wrench Benders, Cliff O’Bryhim has more on his mind than keeping a family grocery store going.

He’s keeping Overbrook going.

Without O’Bryhim’s Thriftway, this business district would be four blocks of bleak.

With the store, customers arrive from 10, 15 miles out, since there are only two other grocery stores in all of Osage County. Maybe the travelers hit a couple other establishments while here.

But then there’s Topeka, a half-hour away.

Overbrookians who commute to the capital city can pick up whatever they need at the Wal-Mart near the Interstate 470 interchange. Everyone who runs a shop here gets dinged as a result.

I’ve seen Mayor Don Schultz shudder — a beefy ex-Marine actually shudder — over the thought of Wal-Mart erasing O’Bryhim’s:

“If we were to lose that grocery store ... oh! Oh, man.”

Mingling this fall with neighbors at the Santa Fe Trail Festival, the mayor strolled past children, whose names he knew, having a blast crushing apples in an old cider press.

Teens were atop their horses. A family hunched over a fire in hopes of winning the chili cook-off for the third straight year.

Schultz said he understood why someone launching a business would choose the city: “But some people are willing to take a hit for this life out here.”

O’Bryhim is one of them.

“I’ve worked the store all my life,” the 57-year-old said while on lunch break one Saturday at Conrad’s restaurant. “I was swatting flies at age 4.”

An even-keel sort with a ruddy face and soft voice, he is grandson to Clifford C. O’Bryhim, who launched the grocery in 1932. Later, “Scoot” O’Bryhim, Cliff’s dad, took over.

Cliff O’Bryhim has two children — Brad and Chad, the fourth generation — who have helped stock shelves and work the smoker on the sidewalk out front.

But they’re totally not interested in taking over.

“Brad married an opthalmologist. He’ll do just fine,” O’Bryhim said. “Chad? He’s thinking about getting a master’s in conflict resolution.”

Two professions that Overbrook’s main drag doesn’t need much.

What it needs is to keep the grocery store, which provides much more than fresh food and household items.

It’s the only place for miles around where you can rent a video. The DVDs are available near the customer service counter, which also sells hunting and fishing licenses.

Two of the store’s three checkout aisles usually aren’t occupied, unless the wait at the main register exceeds three customers, at which point O’Bryhim will summon help.

The Thriftway provides two dozen jobs, largely to teens. And their parents check in with O’Bryhim to make sure the kids are doing what they’re paid to do.

“That’s one benefit of being a small-town business,” O’Bryhim said. “You know the families. You sort of see your future employees grow up.”

When a family new to town enters the store, employees know to alert the owner.

O’Bryhim wants to consult with them personally: Food allergies? Vegetarian diets?

“Should we stock more Swanson frozen foods?” he’ll ask.

The personal touch is vital, in part, to offset prices charged in small-town stores. They don’t deal so much in bulk.

At O’Bryhim’s, I recently bought some staple items: a half-gallon of milk, a loaf of Sara Lee bread, Gatorade, Jif, C&H sugar, bananas, a pound of ground beef and 29 ounces of Maxwell House coffee.

I paid $31.73.

Same day, I drove 23 miles to Wal-Mart and priced those goods at $22.98.

At his automotive shop, Wrench Benders, Kent Morrison (right) visits with Elwyn Moore, who operates Cattlemen Livestock Services. Moore does work throughout the area, and is easily Overbrook's most recognizable character. At left is Morrision's son, Brent. Cody Reed (rear) also works at the shop on Overbrook's main drag.

Leap of faith

Many an Overbrook resident had told me of the Morrisons’ leap of faith before I even met them.

“Hey, come on in,” Kent Morrison said as I stood on his home’s porch on the south edge of Overbrook, a mile from his Wrench Benders shop.

Three dogs greet me. “Yeah, they came with us from Texas,” he said.

The whole family came, two grown sons and a teenage daughter, to help launch the car-maintenance shop.

We sat a long while.

Kent and Diane haven’t always been so eager to listen to God.

Kent, especially, had some pretty scary run-ins with alcohol abuse, one that resulted in being car-jacked at gunpoint while sleeping it off in a bad neighborhood in Houston.

The couple married in 1987, divorced in 1997 and remarried in 2010, after they found Jesus through a motorcycle ministry.

Diane worked at a financial-services company bought out by Goldman Sachs. They told her in the fall of 2011 that she and some other office workers were no longer needed.

Kent, a good mechanic, went from one dismal car shop to another. Seemed to him that he could always turn around a shaky garage, but the owner rung up the profits.

The Morrisons were searching. They prayed hard for direction.

That’s when Christina Brewer, Diane’s cousin in Ottawa, Kan., let them know she’d put them in the Internet prayer chain at her church, Grace Community in Overbrook.

Brewer then learned that a deacon at Grace who owned Wrench Benders was willing to take offers.

While the Morrisons pondered their options in Texas, a pastor in their motorcycle ministry mentioned a vision she had of Kent and Diane finding success and affecting lives, in a house with pillars out front and a big window facing Main Street.

The couple rented a Malibu on Labor Day weekend to check out the Wrench Benders shop.

It wasn’t a house on Main Street. But the building had two brick pillars out front. And a big window facing Maple Street, which is the main drag.

Close enough.

“I know their move to Kansas was absolutely a God thing,” said cousin Brewer. “And I know God’s going to see them through.”

Kent hopes so.

Business hasn’t been very good.

And first week on the job, he learned that auto repair in Overbrook wasn’t just about fixing Chevys.

He stepped out of the shop to encounter a vehicle that might as well have been from outer space.

“I’m looking up at this thing that’s got tires 8 feet tall and arms stretching out like tentacles,” Kent Morrison recalled. “I am like, ‘ What the heck is that?’”

It was a crop sprayer, in need of a new tire.

Kent turned to his able assistant, a young man named Cody, and told him, “Have fun with that.” No problem, said Cody, having helped out at Wrench Benders since he was 10.

Kent later had many conversations with God, such as:

OK, God, you put me here in a farm town. And my first year here, there’s the worst drought we’ve ever had. Flat tires may need changing, sure, but everybody’s putting off major fixes.

Diane is stressed and losing weight, he told God. My oldest son spends three days in the hospital for ulcers, and that sets us back $25,000.

Is this, Kent asked, a test of faith?

Tim Quaney has worked at the Overbrook grain elevator for nine years, putting in long hours during the harvest seasons. Farms struggled during last year's drought, affecting small businesses as farmers deferred big spending.

Make way

This spring, the ol’ boys at the BP, who gather about 7 a.m. for coffee, had to move from their table in a vacant side room. A new sports bar was opening in that space in June.

Three or four eating establishments have tried making a go there. One charged for an extra plate to split a meal, prompting a community-wide boycott.

The new eatery, called Double D’s, features Dee Wiley’s smoked-meat sandwiches.

Wiley wasn’t prepared for the crush that accompanied the grand opening. The town council had agreed to include a flier in water bills sent to area residents, so the joint was packed.

Some customers left rather than sit through a long wait for their meals.

The word of Double D’s bumpy start reached the grocery store the next morning. O’Bryhim could empathize with Wiley.

“In a big city,” he said, “a new establishment that wants to get off to a good start would just hire more servers than they really need. Then get rid of them.

“In a small town, laying off kids doesn’t go over well.”

As it is, shops in Overbrook open and lock up whenever the owners feel like it. If they need to make deliveries or pick up supplies, they’ll gladly sacrifice the walk-in business.

Kerri Davis, who runs Flowers on the Trail from her home, has made deliveries as far out as Eskridge, 38 miles west.

“I go to Harveyville. I go to Scranton,” she says. “Osage City, Melvern, Vassar. … I have 16 rural towns in my repertoire.”

It would be foolhardy to think Overbrook’s population alone could sustain most businesses, sociologist Davies said.

“A town of 1,000 might keep a pool hall going,” Davies said. “An auto-repair shop, maybe, if the mechanic is reliable.

“And if you come up with some niche not found in the chain stores — a quilt shop, for example — that will work.”

Which is why the Quilt Connection survives in Overbrook.

But a clothier? A hardware store? Or the drug store that used to serve up phosphate sodas where Conrad’s now serves suds?

“The chance of success is small and getting smaller,” Davies said.

Nobody really did Overbrook any favors when, a decade ago, all of Osage County and its 16,000 residents qualified for inclusion in Topeka’s official Metropolitan Statistical Area.

The larger the headcount of an MSA, the more prospective chain stores take notice.

Few driving through Osage County would think “metropolitan.” It had 5,000 more people, mostly farmers, a century ago. But one-fifth of county residents now commute to Topeka — one factor in the MSA equation — and that helps attract retailers.

To Topeka, not to Osage County.

“As soon as our MSA was reclassified, we saw additional stores come in,” said Marsha Sheahan of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce. “Especially big retailers.”

Just the kind that kill stores in Overbrook.

Sheahan offered Overbrookians some consolation: “They can come up here to shop at Menards.”

Tradition sells

Double D’s remains in business.

Day-to-day can be slow. But every so often, Overbrook is crawling with people who will step in for sandwiches.

Soccer leagues at the ballfields on Saturdays. The Overbrook Osage County Fair and parade. Fourth of July fireworks at City Lake Park, when scores of visitors watch from their cars crammed into the BP parking lot.

The BP that night shuts off the canopy lights at 9 p.m. so Overbrook is dark while the rockets explode.

Mike Fawl, who owns the building that shelters the BP and Double D’s, said something interesting while sitting one morning with the ol’ boys: “In a small town, you need to have the newness wear off” before a business starts to click.

Tradition sells better than new.

On the positive side, the 2013 wheat harvest was one of the best in decades, rebounding huge from the drought-withered fields of the previous summer.

And the Morrison family is hanging on at Wrench Benders.

Business is building, though still not what Kent and Diane had hoped. Customers rave, though, about how they’ve really cleaned up the place.

“Not here to get rich,” Kent Morrison said. “We’re here to live the small-town life and to relax.”

The couple joined Rotary. “I really do like the people,” Diane said.

And Kent figured out why God told him to come.

Stepping behind the counter, I smile at a little boy named Landon swaying in a mechanical rocker.

Ironic, Kent says of his first grandchild: One reason for leaving the city was to provide his 18-year-old daughter a safer environment. All of her friends around Houston were getting pregnant too young.

Within a few months, she got pregnant in Overbrook.

Kent and his sons at the shop — plus Cody, the able assistant — laugh pretty hard about that. And Landon just grins at us.

In numerous visits with the Morrisons, I’ve watched the boy learn to toddle and never once heard him cry.

So he was the point of it all.

“Just to be with that little guy every day,” Kent Morrison says, “makes our move worth everything.”