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License to retire: Gary Spooner selling Bulletin License Center after 47 years in the business

Gary Spooner has sold the Bulletin License Center in Cottage Grove and is retiring after 47 years in the business. He’ll still be wearing his Santa suit at Christmas. (Bulletin photo by Toni Lambert)

The go-to man in Cottage Grove’s earlier years was Gary Spooner, longtime resident and owner of the  Bulletin License Center, who is retiring after 47 years in the business.

Spooner has sold the license center to Jeff Orth, owner of license centers in Rochester, Eagan, Inver Grove Heights, Circle Pines and in the St. Paul Sears store.

To celebrate the handover and say thank you to customers, Spooner and his staff are  holding an open house from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, May 30, in Suite 600, next door to the License Center, at 8599 West Point Douglas Road. The public is invited for refreshments and to meet Orth.

“I’ve always believed you should give back to your community,” Spooner said in a recent interview.

Spooner was on committees that organized the first Cottage Grove city festival parade in the late ’60s and built the first professional building in the city. He was president of the Cottage Grove Business Association for five years. That group evolved into the Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce. He is the last active charter member of the South Washington County Rotary Club, now the Woodbury Rotary Club; a charter member of the Cottage Grove Lions Club; and a 30-year member of Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District board.

“He’s definitely left his mark on the whole community,” said Shari Schwartz, a Cottage Grove resident who has worked with Spooner at the License Center for 15 years. “The biggest change in the turnover will be emotional because we won’t have Gary here every day. He comes in early, has coffee and we sit and chat. He’s wonderful to work with, fair, open minded and encouraging. He leads by example.”

Schwartz said Gary and his wife Judy always held summer and Christmas gatherings at their home for employees and their families. “In the summer Gary would grill steaks and at Christmas Judy made prime rib,” Schwartz said. “They always made us take home the leftovers.”

Business experiences

Spooner spent more than 20 years as a young man managing grocery stores in St. Paul. He also spent a week selling hearing aids.

“I would have sold more if they had heard me knocking on the door,” he said. He tried insurance next and finally sold advertising in 1970 for John Herman, who owned the Bulletin newspaper, then based in Newport. In 1971, Spooner purchased half the newspaper and they moved the office to Cottage Grove, where Culver’s is now located. In 1983, he bought Herman’s half.

Not only did Spooner run the newspaper, but added the Park Grove Stationery and Office Supply and eventually took over the deputy registrar business from the city of Cottage Grove, which he reorganized and made a paying concern, he said. In 1994, he sold the Bulletin newspaper to Red Wing Publishing. The License Center and the newspaper have been separate businesses since.

‘Santa Gary’

In 1973, when the manager of Grant City in Cottage Grove was looking for a volunteer to wear a Santa suit and fake beard and wig for the holidays, Spooner volunteered for a weekend. “I fell in love with it,” he said.

“I like being Santa Claus,” Spooner said. “It’s so much fun, like being a rock star. Kids think you’re the greatest and it’s one of the most responsible jobs you’ll ever have.”

Spooner even teaches Santa 101 at annual conventions for natural-bearded Santas. “I tell people if you’re Santa, act like it; don’t be seen taking a drink.”

“My kids have known Gary since they were small and adore him,” Schwartz said. “He always takes time to be Santa for them. We’ve been blessed to have him in our lives.”

Spooner meets children who accompany their parents to the license center. “He gets us to ask the parents their names, then ambles out front to greet the kids and hand out Santa tattoos,” Schwartz said. “The kids love it. It’s a wonderful part of our day. He does the same thing in restaurants. He brings the spirit out all year long.”

For details about Spooner’s Santa role, visit