Fireworks a short-lived, BOOMing business

Photos by Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Hadlyn Schwenk, 7, left, and Hagan Schwenk, 5, right, both of Jasper, pick out fireworks at J & J Discount Fireworks in Jasper on Tuesday. Hadlyn says her favorite part about fireworks are when they go into the sky.

By ALLEN LAMAN
alaman@dcherald.com

JASPER — They’ve got your Screamin’ Skeeters, your Buzz Bombs, your Colorful Comets. Your Bahama Mamas, your Whacky Tobacky’s and your Mini Mee’s. Keep looking and you’ll find the Boom Shakalakas, the Wild Weasels and the Paranormal Pyros.

For the next few days, local firework shops will burn brightly. And then they’ll vanish.

J&J Discount Fireworks, Marvina’s Fireworks and Mark’s Fireworks all stock pyrotechnics for explosives-lovers of all budgets. Each Jasper location is a candy store of shiny, packaged fun.

While the competitors are all locked in their own hustles and have different approaches to staying in business, they all acknowledge a universal truth.

People love gunpowder, glitter and a loud bang.

“Fourth of July has always been my holiday,” Don Noe of Huntingburg said while perusing Mark’s Fireworks on Tuesday. “Hold my beer, watch this, I’m blowing something up.”

For 11 months of the year, Mark’s sells mattresses at its Newton Street store. The chain has 26 locations across Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, and when mid-June rolls around, most of them replace the bed cushions with boxes of gleaming illuminations and crackling sparks.

“You go from seeing 10 people a day to 200 people a day,” said Anicia Kessler, who was born and raised in Jasper and works as a regional manager at the company.

Though the firework season only lasts about a month, Mark’s pulls in about 90% of the company’s total yearly sales from July 2 to July 4.

That number explains why the fireworks side of the business never really stops. Kessler is one of four Mark’s team members who travels to China, where the company’s own fireworks — those under the Really Good Stuff brand — are engineered and developed. There, manufacturers work closely with the Mark’s representatives to design purchasable displays to the team’s liking.

Tony Hurst of Jasper looks through fireworks at Marvina's Fireworks in Jasper on Tuesday.

Kessler admitted that selling mattresses isn’t nearly as fun as selling flammable magic. While customers might groan at the thought of buying a new bed, their eyes light up when the aisles are loaded with colorful fountains, cannons and rockets.

“They come in for fireworks like, ‘Alright, let’s blow some stuff up,’” she said, echoing Noe.

Across town, Jay and Joe Eckstein are the owners of J&J Discount Fireworks on Sixth Street. The brothers first opened the business in summer 2009, and have operated on short-term leases in various storefronts ever since.

Fittingly, the idea came at a family Independence Day party years ago. But unlike most times when two optimistic guys lacking experience talk late at night about opening a business, they actually did it.

The Ecksteins entered the industry in hopes of offering a low-cost, high-quality alternative to members of their hometown community. Jay and Joe invested big chunks of their lives into researching distributors, attending fireworks conferences that highlight the products, acquiring necessary permits, and on and on.

Now, like Mark’s and Marvina’s, they stock everything from sparklers and smoke bombs to cakes — which are lengthy displays packed into one container, fired by one fuse.

“You’ve got to offer a variety,” said Jay, who is also a member of the Jasper Volunteer Fire Department and uses his emergency knowledge to teach customers proper lighting techniques.

“Because every person that comes through the door is looking for something different. They all have their taste in fireworks that they like.”

J&J opened for the year on June 14 and will close on Saturday. The brothers lean on family members and close friends to volunteer time at the rented space, and they all take pride in being part of the annual pop-up business.

Jay and Joe also thanked Scott Steinkamp, who they said has been instrumental in providing them an affordable place to set up shop and allow their regular customers to keep coming back year after year for their annual fix.

Don Noe of Huntingburg looks through fireworks at Mark's Fireworks in Jasper on Tuesday.

“It’s family,” said Joe, who grew up in Jasper and now lives in Indianapolis. “That’s one thing about the store. It’s really family-oriented.”

Laurie Drake, owner of Marvina’s Fireworks on Newton Street, also has a familial connection to the bright lights and loud pops in the sky.

Her father, Marvin Reynolds, owned convenience stores, and one day, a man in a van sold him $100 worth of fireworks to stock in those stores. Marvin initially regretted the purchase, thinking he’d burned a Ben Franklin on junk.

He quickly sold all the fireworks, though, and then he bought another $100 worth. Eventually, Marvin opened a few fireworks shops, and when the U.S. 231 bypass was constructed, he moved one of the locations — named Marvin’s Fireworks — to Marvina’s current location in the 1990s.

Drake started as her father’s partner, and she later branched into her own chain of stores. The name “Marvina” comes from how similar she is to her dad. He passed away in 2013.

Now, Drake owns three Marvina’s stores in Indiana and Kentucky. While her operation is unique in that it is open year-round by appointment, she still heavily relies on a successful July 4 haul.

“We do a lot of praying,” she said. “We’re like farmers. We pray for rain, then we pray it doesn’t rain.”

Drake lives in Owensboro, Kentucky, but she said Jasper has always treated her well. She does extensive shopping, cherry-picking the cream of the crop for her stores from wholesalers across the country to fill her shelves.

All three of the Jasper fireworks stores sell unique products that don’t have much overlap.

Drake has seen a big change in the type of fireworks customers buy over the years. Fireworks started out as a way for kids to be dazzled, and it’s now adults who take pride in having the brightest and biggest shows on the block.

Her dad used to host a huge party every year with a large display of his own. Drake knows that if Marvin could see what she’s done today, he’d be proud.

“Fireworks make memories,” she said.

Another fireworks store is located at Budget Video on U.S. 231 in Huntingburg. They did not return phone calls made for this story.




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