MARLOW — While most Otasco stores in Oklahoma closed in the late 1980s, a bright yellow sign bearing the name of the forgotten retail chain still hangs defiantly over Mike Crow’s hardware and small-engine repair shop.
The Otasco store, one of the last remaining of its kind in the state, sits on Main Street in Marlow between a Dollar General and a shop with a hand-painted sign called “Little Bit of Everything” that sells just that. The Marlow Review newspaper and City Hall are on the same block.
Although both are well into their 80s, E.J. and Nancy Crow, who opened the Marlow Otasco in 1963, still answer the phone and work the counters. The couple feel they have to help out their son, Mike, who took over the business about 20 years ago. He frequently has his hands full repairing weed eaters and lawnmowers.
Among the racks of lawn mowers, tools and engine parts are dusty displays of everything from antique shotgun shells to son Ron Crow’s mounted deer and elk trophies to a faded, vintage yellow and black toy truck bearing the old Otasco logo.
“That’s the good thing about owning your own shop,” Nancy Crow said. “You don’t have to make it look like Walmart — you can make a mess if you want.”
Hanging over E.J. Crow’s perch behind the counter at the back of the shop are dozens of hand-made wooden signs bearing quips like “Gun control means using both hands,” and “We give you fast service no matter how long it takes” — mostly souvenirs from the couple’s annual trips to New Mexico.
Nancy Crow keeps a toy pellet gun in the original battered cardboard box on one shelf. A former customer who bought the gun on credit at the shop as a child gave it to Nancy as a gift. From the price tag on the box, Nancy guesses it is probably 30 or 40 years old.
From time to time, people who grew up in Marlow will stop by the shop and reminisce about how they purchased their first fishing rod or bicycle at the store.
And there are the longtime area residents who wander into the shop that has been on Main Street since the 1960s for the first time and say, “‘I didn’t know you all were here,’” Mike Crow said.
Longtime customer Keith Mansfield, who is CEO of First National Bank in Marlow, recalls how he came into the shop once several years ago and asked to order a certain brand of bicycle.
“E.J. said ‘Well, I can order it, but it will probably take a week or two to get. You should go to Walmart; it might be a little cheaper there, too,’” Mansfield said.
Mansfield said he was willing to wait, and when he came back to pay for the bicycle, E.J. Crow had reduced the price.
“I said ‘That’s not the price you quoted me,’ and E.J. said ‘Well, it’s a little cheaper because not everyone is willing to wait a week or two for something to come in,’” Mansfield said.
Otasco, which stands for Oklahoma Tire and Supply Co., was founded with a single store in Okmulgee in 1918 by three Jewish-Lithuanian immigrant brothers, Sam, Maurice and Herman Sanditen.
Nancy Crow recalls the Sanditen family as extremely thrifty. The Crows would receive letters from the Otasco corporate offices in Tulsa in reused envelopes.
“They were frugal, but they knew what they were doing — they had 600 stores at one time,” she said.
Otasco stores sold lawn mowers, tools and appliances, as well as toys, bicycles and other general merchandise. The Otasco brand based much of its business around allowing customers to purchase items on credit, as the Marlow Otasco still does.
Once a staple of small towns across the state, most Otasco stores closed in the late 1980s, but a few franchisees continued to use the name. There also is an Otasco in operation in the Oklahoma Panhandle town of Beaver.
The Crows decided to become Otasco franchisees after E.J. Crow left his job as a schedule examiner for the Rock Island Railroad.
“I decided I wanted to have something of my own,” E.J. Crow said. “We came to Marlow because Otasco said they needed a store here, and the town has been good to us.”
Otasco Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November 1988 after failing to reach an agreement with its bankers that would have allowed the chain to purchase Christmas inventory for its stores, according to newspaper articles from the time. The chain immediately closed 170 company-owned stores in 11 states and told 1,600 workers they would lose their jobs.
Otasco ran out of financing in 1989 and liquidated most of its remaining business operations that year.
After the Otasco bankruptcy, the Crows operated as Ace Hardware and then Servistar Coast to Coast before eventually reverting back to the Otasco name.
Otasco gave its franchisees the right to continue using the name for 99 years after going out of business.
Ron Crow recalls how he and his brother both worked at the store after school every day and on weekends as teenagers.
“Everyone else would be out at the lake, and we would be here, putting together bicycles,” said Ron Crow, who even continued working at his parent’s shop while he was in college in Chickasha. “We grew up here.”
Both he and brother Mike continue to work at the shop.
Mike Crow returned to take over the business after retiring from his career as a millwright.
“We wanted to retire around 1989, but Mike said he might come back, so we decided to hang on,” Nancy Crow said.
Last year, the store celebrated 50 years in business with a full-page ad in the Marlow Review with the Crows’ wedding picture, among other historical photographs.
Now 60, Mike Crow doesn’t know if a third generation of the Crow family will keep the Otasco name alive in Marlow.
“None of my kids have any interest in taking this place over,” Mike Crow said.
“But then, I didn’t either when I was their age.”
Unchained: This story is part of a series on Oklahoma’s forgotten retail chains.