Against All Odds, Mom and Pop Hardware Stores
Front Street, Chum's Corners, Acme
Joan Boyd and Don Maxbauer
'If you're smart, you adjust.'
In the months before Lowe's and Menards opened their doors in 2005, the co-owners of Maxbauer Ace Hardware buckled down and strategized.
"We'd been through it before," said Joan Boyd, who along with her brother Don Maxbauer purchased the 59-year-old store in 1990 from their father John Maxbauer. "I can remember when Meijer came [in 1977] and we thought it was the end of the world. If you're smart, you adjust."
With three locations on Front Street, Acme, and Chum's Corners, the siblings have fine-tuned their stores' niche market, which Boyd likens to a tier two supplier.
"If you want to remodel your bath, you go to Lowe's or Home Depot, but then you find you're missing something and that's where we come in," said Boyd, whose main store on Front Street carries 36,000 items, versus about 4,000 at Sam's Club, something she researched recently. "The beauty of our stores is you can get in and out, there's rarely a line at the registers, and we have people helping you who really know what they're doing."
Playing second fiddle to the big guys wasn't always the case for the Maxbauer family. For many years, their store on Front Street was the only game in town for tools, trinkets and even toys, the bulk of which were in the store's basement and remains a happy memory for many area natives.
"For years we would have to wrap toys during the Christmas shopping season," said Boyd, "but now we have all of our power tools down there so I guess it's still technically a toy store, but for bigger boys."
Through the years the Maxbauer family has embraced innovation as it came along, a trait that began with the original co-owners and brothers John and Bill, whose idea it was to use the local paper as a means of distributing their advertising circulars in the 1960s.
"Before using the Record-Eagle, we had to type people's addresses on cards and manually run thousands of these circulars through this machine. It was incredibly onerous," she said.
At first the Record-Eagle balked at the idea, but "money helped get that deal done," said Boyd.
When Boyd's father and uncle first opened the store, they were not the first merchants in the family: The boys' father and uncle had run Maxbauer's Meat Market since 1913. The second generation figured hardware would be somewhat recession-proof; their grandfather helped them open the first store on Front Street in 1954. Two years later, the brothers signed up with the decades-old, dealer-owned Ace Hardware cooperative out of Illinois.
"For many years, it was just up, up, up," said Boyd, who is part of the Big Ace Dealers group, which includes owners with multiple stores that do $1 million in sales a year or more. "Now we watch things really closely; we are constantly refining the mix, thanks to technology."
More than any one thing, computers have influenced the way the siblings do business, she said.
"It's radically changed our industry; before it was so tedious, but now I can tell you exactly how many hammers we have at any one store," said Boyd, whose last major computer upgrade was in 2006 and cost $500,000. "It's also a huge expense; it seems we are constantly replacing computers and software."
While the Boyd-Maxbauer siblings have no plans to step down in the near future, there is some concern about who will take the helm when they do get ready to retire.
"I have three sisters who want nothing to do with the store, I'm not sure what my two children would like to do, and [Don's children] live in Austin, Texas," she said. "A decision will have to be made soon."
Until then, it's business as usual according to how their fathers did things.
"My father and uncle loved hardware stores – the concept, everything about it. Whenever we traveled as a family we visited every one we passed, which wasn't a ton of fun for a young girl," she said. "My uncle and dad were exceptional people. We hope to pass this on to someone who will treat it like we do."
Carver Street in Traverse City
'The Yooper in me likes the
longhand, I guess.'
A shooting incident in his work as a state trooper prompted George DeWeese to get out of law enforcement and into something a little more stable.
After tapping into his retirement fund and getting a loan from Traverse City State Bank, the father of three and Air Force and Korean War veteran opened his eponymous store on Carver Street in 1961.
"I grew up in a working class family in the U.P. and so it was natural for me to open the store in the Heights, which at that time was a working class neighborhood," he said. "Carver was a dirt road and there was nothing out our way except for Oleson's and Golden-Fowler."
Although it was tough going at first, DeWeese responded to his customers' needs, which centered on being open after work was over. Slowly, his 2,500 square-foot space adjacent to his father-in-law's small grocery store expanded to 9,000 square-feet, with his customer base eventually including factories, schools, and businesses.
As an early competitor to the Maxbauers across town, DeWeese said the distance at that time seemed so great that it wasn't an issue.
Plus, the Maxbauer brothers were very welcoming to him as a new hardware merchant.
"I've never forgotten the fact that Bill and Johnny called me up and told me they would help me clerk that first day. They also sent me flowers and told me that if I ran out of something, they would help resupply it with something from their warehouse," DeWeese said. "Every year after that, Johnny would call me on Christmas Eve to wish me Merry Christmas. It's something I will never forget."
To that end, DeWeese says he has no problem with other stores coming into town, even the hardware giants.
"I have no animosity towards [the big box stores.] At first we felt a slight change in sales, but we had our customers back after a short time," he said. "Also, I made it a point to call the managers at Home Depot and Lowe's and tell them if there's something they can't help their customers with, I'd be happy to do it.
"They were astounded."
To remain competitive, DeWeese applied to be a Do It Best retailer in 1986. The process wasn't easy – pristine credit and a well-run store are just the beginning – but buying from the international supplier keeps DeWeese's pricing in line, he said.
"It keeps us viable. It's an upbeat, clean organization and it was a dream come true to join them," he said. "It's one of the world's largest hardware suppliers; you don't just get in – you have to be remarkable."
Although DeWeese's inventory is tracked using barcodes, he still holds tight to some time-honored methods, like longhand math at the counter.
"The Yooper in me likes the longhand, I guess," he said. "I have the ability to do a lot of things in my head and I think it relaxes the customer, too."
DeWeese also makes a point of greeting and thanking every customer that walks through his door and trains his staff to do the same.
"I like to greet people and when I say thank you, I mean it," he said. "You've got to make it a friendly place."
As a veteran, DeWeese said he's been saddened by the gradual lack of American-made goods that he can sell. Nonetheless, whenever he can buy domestic, he does.
"I fly the American flag every single day and as a veteran of the service, I'm a sentimental guy when it comes to our country," he said. "Every single thing I can possibly humanly get that is made in the U.S., I will buy. But mostly our stuff is made overseas."
Although DeWeese is now at an age where many of his colleagues have retired, he says he has no definite plans for succession. His wife Sally oversees payroll and the like; son Rob works alongside him in the store and his other two children have other business interests, he said.
Still, he has hopes for the future of DeWeese Hardware.
"I would hope that some of the family would want to continue it, though we don't have any definite plans," he said. "Even with everything that's going on, there's still a place for the independent American businessman."