St. Paul, Minn. — Store clerks are busy taking apart empty shelves at the Do-It-Best Hardware store on Grand Avenue. Most aisles have as much vacant space as merchandise and what's left is deeply discounted. Even the store's fixtures and computer systems are for sale.
Lee Sowieja, who lives in the neighborhood, says she came by when she heard the store was closing. She says the store filled an important role for her.
"Its very, very close to me, and I'm a single mom and I would come in here all the time with little gizmos or a little bolt or something that fell off of something. They could fit it for me and help me fix something. It was very handy for me to come here, and [they provided] very good service," Sowieja says.
The Grand Avenue Hardware store offered an unusual variety of goods, ranging from traditional hardware fare like power tools and plumbing supplies to garlic storage bags and other kitchen accessories. The basement featured drawers of nuts and bolts in a wide variety of sizes. And customers could buy just one. Some purchases amounted to mere pennies. Many neighborhood residents would dash to the store to pick up a tool or a part in the middle of a weekend project.
Alan Brill, who owns a nearby store, says the loss of Grand Avenue Hardware is bad for the neighborhood and the block. Brill says many people in the area have relied on the store for years.
"There's people that have been going there and their kids have been going there," Brill says. "For us, we go there five times a day to get stuff, every thing from tape to anytime I need something repaired."
Jim Solin, president of the hardware store, says a number of things are forcing the store to shut down.
"I think the opening of a big box Menards store took some of our business. There's another hardware store at the other end of the Avenue that took some of our business," says Solin. "At the end of 2003 we were doing quite well so we thought it was time to expand so we opened another store. And that one just did not work out, so consequently we had some loans that came due that we couldn't keep up with, and here we are today closing."
Since its start in 1915, 1676 Grand Avenue has been a tin-smith shop, a general store and finally a hardware store. Solin has been with the company for nearly 30 years.
"I feel terrible about the store closing," Solin says. "I mean my life blood is in here. All my life savings have gone into the store to keep it going."
Mac Hardin, executive director of the Minnesota Dakota Retail Hardware Association, laments the loss of Grand Avenue Hardware. "That store just has been an institution for years. It's sad to see it close its doors," Hardin says. But he adds that the closing is not typical.
"The perception is that the big boxes are doing in the hardware stores and that someday the local hardware store may not be there in any form," Hardin says. "And that simply is not true, as evidenced by the net increase in the number of stores."
Hardin says the number of locally-owned hardware stores in Minnesota and the Dakotas declined during the 1990s, but they're on the rebound. In the last two years there have been at least 50 new stores and expansions underway in the retail hardware business in the three states.
Hardin says some existing store owners saw expansion opportunities after competitors folded. He says many store owners have opened additional shops. He says independent hardware wholesalers, who play a key role in financing stores, have encouraged the trend.
But the effort to expand helped doom Grand Avenue Hardware.
As customers jot reminiscences in the store's memory book, Jim Solin says he'll be looking for a new job. But he hasn't lost his sense of humor.
"I'm thinking about running for president," he says, chuckling. "I'm going to take a couple of weeks, decide what I want to do. I'll either go to work for competitor, which is probably going to be difficult after being my own boss for so long, or I might decide to dabble in some smaller business type of thing that's still has something to do with repair."
Solin's business may not be the last to sell hammers, shovels and drills in this spot. Solin says the landlord is trying to find another hardware store to fill the space.