Grand Ave Hardware closing its doors

By Ari Ofsevit

For almost any question at Macalester which begins with a “where can I find…”, the answer has been Grand Avenue Hardware, affectionately known around the Mac-Groveland area as “Ace Hardware,” its former corporate affiliate. Its reign will end on Feb. 5, when, after 90 years, three owners and thousands of visits from Mac students, Grand Avenue Hardware will close its doors. Grand Avenue Hardware, currently affiliated with the Do-It-Best Co., declared bankruptcy late last year. The business tried to expand by adding another location in Mendota Heights, but the expansion failed, putting the store in a large amount of debt, according to president Jim Solin. The Grand Ave. store has continued to make a profit even with the recent opening of a Menard’s on University Ave. and competition from an Ace Hardware store at Grand and Dale.

Solin contacted the Macalester’s High Winds Fund, but Macalester was gun-shy about helping after losing several hundred thousand dollars when Ruminator closed in 2004. Tom Welna, director of the High Winds Fund, said that the college would definitely take a look at purchasing the property if the owner, the Smolik Family Trust, puts it up for sale.

The store was originally opened in 1915 at its current address, 1676 Grand Avenue. Albert Smolik ran the store for about 40 years before he sold it to his son, Donald, in the 1950s. The Smolik family sold the business to the store’s employees in 1994, and Solin has been the president ever since, although it has continued to operate as an employee-owned venture. Most of the employees will lose the stock they invested in the company–some stand to lose quite a bit of their savings.

The store dropped the Ace brand in 2003 because of a “difference in marketing philosophy with Ace,” Solin said. Ace wanted certain items displayed in a certain manner and was “looking for a cookie cutter store,” and the store wanted to remain independent and unique, so the company opted to become a Do-It-Best franchise.

As debt mounted, Solin brought in a consultant and drew up a plan to try to save the business, but when loans were due in November, the company was forced to decide whether to close the business after nearly a century. Solin announced the closing last Saturday.

For Geography professor David Lanegran, a Tangletown resident, the store has always been convenient. He has long been active in the Grand Avenue Business Association, of which the store was a participant. A customer since 1959, Lanegran remembers when the store had more diverse services, including a tinsmith and small engine repair shop, and has seen the store adapt to the changing neighborhood over the years. He said he especially will miss the owner-to-client relationship, and has always found the staff at the store very helpful.

Laura Meinke ’06 echoed the thoughts of many students, saying that she “liked that store, you could get almost anything there.”

Others were more indifferent. “These things happen,” said Sarah Lambert ’07.

There is some hope, however, for those in the community who appreciate having a hardware store nearby. The Smolik family still owns the building, which has proven to be a profitable location for such a store. “Retail hardware stores can’t afford the rent of a restaurant or clothing store,” Solin said, but added that the Smoliks might charge below-market rent to keep a hardware store in the building.

If a hardware store were to occupy the space again, the store would likely be shut down for a couple of months, opening by April for the busy spring season. Grand Avenue Hardware will lay off all of its three dozen employees, about half of whom work full time. Most years, the store employs two or three Macalester students, many of whom begin work there as first years and work through college. Solin said that quite a few Macalester students have worked their way through college at the store.

Many of the employees have been with the business for quite some time. Solin started working at Grand Avenue Hardware in 1976, and his wife, Jeannine, began working at the store in 1961 at the age of 15, before which she babysat for the Smolik’s children. Cheryl Schroeder, a twelve year veteran of the store, held back tears as she arranged for three longtime feline residents of the store to find new homes. Grand Avenue Hardware has been home to several cats over the years, and its current residents–six-year-olds Toby and Tony and ten-year-old Ace–will be taken in by local families.

Several other stores have recently closed along Grand Ave., West of campus. Ruminator Books was replaced by Patagonia in 2004, and Asian Fusion will close its doors soon. Risimini’s closed in September 2005 so the owner could care for her elderly mother, Solin said, and it will be replaced by the Italian Pie Shoppe next month, which will relocate from further east on Grand Ave., an employee said.