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Another Mom and Pop bites the dust


Winkelman's True Value Hardware in Broadview is closing its doors after 45 years in business. It is the seventh Puget Sound area True Value to close within the last year.

Owner Chuck Winkelman Jr. says he's closing in part due to the changing retail market, but also due to all the new nearby Big-Box retailers, including Home Depot, Lowe's, and Kmart, all of which have taken away customers from his business.

Winkelman's True Value is located at 14401 Greenwood Ave N., less than a mile from the newly renovated Kmart on Aurora and about 1-1/2 miles north of the new Lowe's at N 125th and Aurora, which took over the former three-year old Eagle Hardware store, strategically located across the street, just north of the six-year old Home Depot store.

The closing of Winkelman's True Value follows the recent shutting of Greer Lumber in Greenwood. Winkelman says his store's business began to decline about three years ago, about the time Home Depot was just becoming established in North Seattle.

As a True Value store owner, Winkelman does have some buying power as member of TruServ, the world's largest retail co-op, with about 6,500 stores worldwide. He says he would like to offer the same low prices that the big guys do, but he claims they are offering deals he could never beat and quantities he would never have room to stock.

Instead, he says, he tried to carry stuff the Big Box stores don't have.

A glance at the merchandise left over from Winkelman's going-out-of-business sale illustrates this fact: an assortment of weird, specialized, and hard-to-find items such as bone-handle pocket knives, sleds, and cast iron mini-snowman baking molds.

Despite his best efforts, Winkelman says his store's customers still dwindled. He, his wife Dana, and their three sons, Todd, Kerry, and Matt who all work at the store, would repeatedly hear from customers that they go to Home Depot all the time, but can't get decent service.

As the sales started slipping, Winkelman looked to True Value's Corporate Offices for help. He says they suggested solutions such as building improvements and a large advertising campaign. He followed their advice only to find: "We got new business, but not enough," he says, adding that his store has just managed to break even the past three years.

Winkelman says a similar situation happened to the True Value store in Smokey Point when Eagle set up shop across the street. He says True Value Corp. convinced the owner of the store to spend thousands of dollars remodeling. In the end, the Smokey Point store was still forced to close its doors and the owner was left with the renovation bills to pay and mortgages on his house.

Winkelman says he and his wife didn't want that to happen to them and decided to cut their losses and close. "We made the decision in September and now feel relieved," he says.

Winkelman says there are other reasons they and other mom-and-pop stores have closed. Two other stores lost their lease - one in Silver Lake to high rent increases and one in Kirkland because the owner wanted to tear down the building and put up a condominium. The store chose not to relocate.

His own store has suffered market changes as the growing economy creates wealthier new Seattle homeowners and the inevitable aging of established customers. He says both don't want to be "do-it-yourselfers" and prefer instead to hire handymen.

In addition, the surrounding business environment has changed. Petosa's Market and the Broadview Pharmacy next door to Winkelman's were huge draws, but both closed over the last few years. The new 145th Street Market which took over Petosa's Market now specializes in Asian foods and does not carry staples such as milk and eggs.

Winkelman doesn't think the same fate will befall the Greenwood True Value, which was recently purchased by Mike Radice about a year ago. It is surrounded by other independent retailers, such as Ken's Market, which sell everyday items. The Greenwood True Value store is also located in a densely-populated neighborhood with relatively good foot-traffic. Many local residents don't have cars and stop in on their way home after getting off the bus.

Winkelman says he and his wife plan to close their store on Dec. 9. They look forward to having time off to renovate their newly purchased historic 1911 home in the Meridian neighborhood, near Green Lake. After that, they'll take a much needed vacation to Hawaii. As far as their business is concerned, they have not yet decided whether they should redevelop the land, sell the building or lease it.

A family business

Winkelman's parents, Chuck Winkelman Sr. and his wife Cathy, began the store in 1955 when Winkelman Sr. decided to get out of the auto repair business because of the dust, fumes, and hard labor. They bought the building in Broadview, which had been a 1,500-square-foot general store/post office.

At that time, the family became part of the Marshall Wells co-op. His family "bought into" the co-op by buying a required amount of stock. In 1958, the store changed co-ops to belong to Hometown Hardware. Ten years later, they joined the True Value co-op. In 1997, True Value merged with Service Star and Coast to Coast to become TruServ. However, company's individual stores still retain the True Value name.

In 1963, the Winkelmans added an addition to the building and quadrupled the store's retail space to 6,000 square feet. They rented half the space to Highland's Pharmacy (Broadview Pharmacy took over in 1990), which brought in additional revenue. They also built an apartment upstairs and moved in with their two children, Chuck Jr. and Lynn (now Lynn Gering).

Winkelman says living upstairs from the store wasn't always a good thing. He remembers his father getting woken up in the middle of the night to supply parts to fix a customer's broken faucet or toilet.

Winkelman attended the University of Washington to earn a degree in education, with his goal to become a high school photography and art teacher. While in college, he met his wife Dana at a dance at the HUB, the student union building on campus. After graduating in 1970, he says he had a difficult time finding a job. Plus, Dana was expecting their first son Todd.

The solution for Winkelman was obvious: he returned to work full-time at his family's store. In 1978, he took over running the business. Shortly after that, his father passed away. In 1996, he bought the store from his mother. She passed away two years later.

When Broadview Pharmacy closed in 1998, the Winkelman family decided to expand the hardware store into the space and sell gardening supplies and plants. Another tenant, the Homebrew Shop, still leases a space next door. His three sons all work at the store. Todd, the oldest, is now a gardener. Kerry, the middle son, is the store manager. Matt, the youngest, just graduated from college with a degree in civil engineering. Dana, Winkelman's wife, works as the store's bookkeeper. Everyone in the family is a University of Washington graduate.

A similar beginning

About 10 years before the Winkelmans opened their hardware store in what was then unincorporated King County, Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse began as a medium-sized hardware store in North Wilkesboro, a little town in central North Carolina, near the cities of Durham and Chapel Hill.

The store, which started in 1946, was called Lowe's North Wilkesboro Hardware Company and sold everything from overalls to horse collars. It was originally owned by James Lowe and his brother-in law Carl Buchan. However, Buchan had dreams of expanding, so he bought out Lowe and began building Lowe's Hardware Stores all over North Carolina.

Buchan's success was based largely on his ability to eliminate the middle man and deal directly with manufacturers. In addition, he changed the type of merchandise to reflect the growing needs of the new GI homeowner and began to stock mostly building materials and household items.

The company went public in 1961 and began trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 1979. In 1982, Lowe's made a record $25 million profit, which allowed them to expand even more. At this time, the chain's stores were a mere 11,000 square feet on average. Their main competitors at the time were the ACE hardware and True Value chains as well as local businesses.

In the early '80s, a home improvement retail chain called Hechingers began to move into the area. Their formula was "Big Box" stores which could offer low prices and large volume that smaller independent stores would be hard-pressed to match. The chain was eventually bought out. However, Atlanta-based Home Depot and California-based Home Base soon followed with similar Box Box stores of their own.

Lowe's copied the Big Box format with an average store size of 150,000 square feet. The chain now has 635 stores in 40 states, a far cry from its meager beginnings.

Last year, Lowes moved into the Puget Sound area by buying out the Renton-based Eagle Hardware chain. It recently converted Eagle's stores into Lowe's stores. Home Depot and Home Base, by the way, are both currently reporting losses.

The Big Box controversy

It is no secret that large retail superstores drive out smaller local business because they simply cannot compete. As a result, in some parts of the country, a backlash has been growing in opposition to the "chaining" of America.

In 1998, Starbucks wanted to move to Bainbridge Island, but was shut out by a "formula take-out food" zoning ordinance. Today, the island remains chain-less, save for a McDonald's built before the ordinance took effect. Walking around the town of Winslow offers customers small local shops, some as small as 400 square feet and an amazing collection of one-of-a-kind new retail as well as used items. The atmosphere is similar to the town of Sicily on Northern Exposure. V Other cities have fought and shut out large superstore retailers. In 1995, Gig Harbor successful fought and won the right to keep out Wal-Mart. The Peninsula Neighborhood Association Web site posts "A Modern Fable About Good vs. Greed" called "Us Against the Wal." In it, they state that Wal-Mart "has a history of employing a strategy of pricing below cost so as to undercut other local businesses selling similar products" in order to drive out competitors.

Two recent ordinances have come across the legislative table - one in Las Vegas that limited the size of large retailers to less than 110,000 square feet was passed in October 1999 by the Clark County Commission. However, a poll reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Dec. 5 of that year that residents were against limiting stores by 3 to 1.

The other ordinance in California targeted superstores statewide who offer one-stop shopping such as Wal-Mart, Costco, and Kmart and limited their size to under 100,000 square feet. It was vetoed by Governor Davis.

Backers of both ordinances included labor unions. The Oregonian newspaper ran an article on this topic in September 1999 which quotes AFL-CIO spokesperson Sharon Cornu as saying giant stores end up killing competition and hurting consumers.Big stores also tend to be less labor-friendly than native California grocery companies such as Safeway Inc., she said.

The article also quotes Wal-Mart spokesman Cynthia Lin, who rebutted Cornu's comments by saying that limiting choices takes away from the consumer.

Of course, that's what mom-and-pop retailers like the Winkelmans are saying, too.

Susan Park was assisted by Jet City Maven reporter Leah Weathersby who conducted the primary interview of the Winkelman family for this report.