Remember that scene in You’ve Got Mail, when Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), the owner of a quaint, independent bookstore called The Shop Around the Corner, pays a visit to her new neighbour Fox Books, a big, Barnes & Noble-style bookstore run by Joe Fox (Tom Hanks)?
As she wanders from section to section, checking out her competitor’s umpteen bells and whistles, it becomes painfully clear to Kelly her decades-old establishment, which she inherited from her mother, isn’t long for this world.
Rob Benson is familiar with that particular rom-com and acknowledges he and his father, Mike, had a similar experience in the mid-1990s, but only in their situation the "culprit" was a newly opened Home Depot outlet.
"We were looking around, going from aisle to aisle, thinking, ‘So this is the devil we’ve been hearing about,’" says Benson, the owner of Corydon Hardware, an old-fashioned, neighbourhood hardware store at 838 Corydon Ave. that has been in his family since 1949.
"For sure, there were some turbulent economic times for us when the big boxes came along, but gradually our regular customers started coming back. But I guess that’s stating the obvious, or else we wouldn’t be standing here, right now."
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Benson says Corydon Hardware began life as the F.W. Weir Hardware Store, which Frederick Weir founded on Main Street, near what is now the Higgins Avenue underpass, nearly 120 years ago. Weirs’ two sons took over when their father retired in the 1920s. In 1938, the pair opened a second location on Corydon Avenue, in a building that originally housed the Corydon Meat Market.
Benson’s grandfather, Ed, was working for the MacDonald Brothers Aircraft Company, a predecessor of Bristol Aerospace, when the Weir brothers put their Corydon location up for sale a few years after the end of the Second World War.
'The way these people have survived is by really being tuned into their customers. They usually know the ages of the homes in their immediate vicinity and have a good idea of what sorts of things are going to need replacing' -- Michael McLarney, managing director of the North American Retail Hardware Association's Canadian division, on independent stores
"My grandfather was born in 1905, so he would have been in his mid-40s at the time, which might seem a little late in life to start over. But he’d always been a bit of a go-getter who worked hard and wasn’t afraid to try new things, so he jumped at the opportunity," Benson says, noting his grandfather changed the name to Corydon Hardware after purchasing the biz.
Benson’s father began working at the store in the 1950s, when he was a teenager. Give him a second, Benson says, and he can probably dig up a photograph of the bike-and-trailer combo his dad used at age 14 to shlep 100-kilogram bags of salt to customers who lived as far away as Osborne Street or Grant Avenue.
"I started coming in on Saturdays to tidy shelves and help restock when I was about 15," Benson says, adding his father assumed ownership in the early 1970s, after Ed retired.
"I wouldn’t say it was a dream of mine to follow in my dad’s footsteps as well, but as time went on, it sort of grew on me that this would a good thing to do.
"I ended up buying the place from my dad when he turned 65, but he stayed on and worked right up until he died, eight years ago. He’d always been a morning person, so even after (the store) was mine, he’d get up at 5 (a.m.), have his coffee and breakfast at home, then come down and open up."
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"I don’t know what you call them, but I need those things that stop your shelf doors from slamming shut. Do you have anything like that?" asks a woman, who has popped into Corydon Hardware with her two young children in tow.
"They’re called cabinet bumpers. I’ve got some vinyl ones and some felt ones. Which would you prefer?" Benson says, leading her down an aisle stocked with a variety of housewares, including radon test kits, which he just started carrying, after three different people in the space of a week asked if he sold the units.
While he is ringing up the sale (the woman opted for felt bumpers), Benson says exchanges such as that happen regularly.
"Take this hasp, for example," he says, reaching for a hinge-like contraption a scribe was wondering about.
"You might know what it’s called, but you’ll come in and say, ‘I need something for a door that I can fasten a padlock to.’ Then it becomes a bit of a guessing game on my part to figure out what it is you’re after, exactly.
"But I think that’s partly why people come here. We offer personalized service and experience. Not that a place like Rona doesn’t hire experienced personnel, too — they definitely do — but the problem is trying to find somebody. Here, we’re only 1,500 square feet. There’s not really anywhere for me to hide."
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Michael McLarney is the managing director of the North American Retail Hardware Association’s Canadian division. He also is the editor of Hardlines, a weekly newsletter aimed at the retail hardware and home improvement industries.
"Truly independent hardware stores are a rare breed nowadays, with probably just a handful in every province," McLarney says, when reached at home in Toronto.
"There’s a soft spot in many people’s hearts for these sorts of stores, for sure, but the individual businesses can’t run on nostalgia alone, I’m afraid."
McLarney doesn’t think he’s been to Corydon Hardware, but he guesses its owner probably has a personality similar to other store owners he’s met, while travelling across the country.
"The way these people have survived is by really being tuned into their customers," he says.
"They usually know the ages of the homes in their immediate vicinity and have a good idea of what sorts of things are going to need replacing (in those homes). Plus, the guy behind the counter is usually an interesting character himself and a lot of times, that’s what their customers are looking for — that truly personal touch."
As is the case with most independently run businesses, the biggest dilemma facing operations such as Corydon Hardware is making ends meet, McLarney says. Unlike grocery stores that draw customers in on an almost-daily basis, a person might only need to visit a hardware store once or twice a month at most, he says. And because the markup on items such as brooms, mousetraps and watering cans doesn’t compare with jewelry, furniture and cologne, McLarney adds, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for small business owners to make a go of it, especially given the level of competition nowadays.
"It’s even tougher if their store is in an urban environment like Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver," he says. "The margin is such that a lot of these guys are having a tough time paying their rent, never mind turning a profit."
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"Realistically, there isn’t too much in here you can’t get somewhere else," Benson says, straightening a row of snow shovels. "But if you’ve got a small job on your hands and you don’t want to buy a box of 100 nails, for example, there aren’t that many places left that will sell you five or six (nails) like we will."
Benson, who hasn’t had an extended vacation since his dad died in 2009, doesn’t have children. When a scribe asks him what that means for the family business going forward, he shrugs and runs his hand through his hair.
"When I decide to retire or pack it in or however you want to put it, I’m pretty sure of what’s going to happen," he says. "I own the building, but if somebody was to take over and start paying rent or assume a mortgage, it would add a lot to the budget, and I’m not 100 per cent sure it would be viable, in that case.
"I hear it all the time, though; people who tell me I’d better not close — how they need me in the community. And I tell them all the same thing, ‘Not a problem. Just keep coming in and buying stuff.’"
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric businesses and restaurants.