Detroit Hardware Co. defies recessions, big box trends

Story as originally posted at The Detroit News –

Three generations have ties to store that dates to 1920s

DETROIT — Detroit Hardware Co. has struggled in recent years, but a store that has endured the Great Depression and every recession since has no fears about its future.

Emily Webster, 55, runs the store on Woodward in Detroit’s New Center. She said Detroit Hardware opened “as far as we know” in 1924 because that was the year the original owners joined the Michigan Retail Hardware Association.

The store has endured the ups-and-downs of the national and local economies, and New Center has gone through varying degrees of success. Most of the retail shops in the strip along Woodward sell clothing or have closed.

Business has been struggling for a while, but Webster says nearby residential and loft development and efforts of the New Center Council Inc. will keep her store alive. She says the area needs restaurants that could help New Center’s Woodward strip become like Midtown, where Union Street restaurant and the Majestic Cafe face each other.

“We’ve stuck with it through the years,” Webster said. “The main thing is trying to stay alive. Our customers beg us, ‘Please, don’t leave.’ ”

The number of independently owned hardware stores in Michigan has dropped from about 2,000 in 1970 to about 1,000 today, according to the Michigan Retail Hardware Association.

Webster’s father, Albert Green, began working at Detroit Hardware in 1926 and, with co-worker Jack Hocking, bought it in 1959. Today, Webster and Hocking’s son, Bob, own the store. Granddaughters from both families work there.

Besides the smell and feel of the old-fashioned store, the store’s ceiling, made of punched white tiles, and the hardwood floors and stairs going to the second floor give away the building’s age.

In Webster’s office is a license plate from the Michigan Retail Hardware Association, which has a 1973 quote from Gerald Ford: “Hardware stores are candy stores for adults.” Sitting next to a copy machine is a large hand-held soil tiller, recently found in the basement and indicative of the store’s original customers: farmers from the surrounding area.

“We think it was built in 1909,” Webster said.

Detroit Hardware is fortunate that it has been able to pass ownership down a generation. David Spedoske, executive director of the Michigan Retail Hardware Association, said chain hardware stores, or “big boxes” such as Home Depot and Lowe’s, aren’t the only problem facing independent hardware stores.

“The problem isn’t the big boxes. Succession is the problem,” Spedoske said. “The kids say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to work hard at this all my life.'”

There are no Home Depots in this neighborhood. The nearest hardware store is Third Avenue Hardware, about a mile south of Wayne State University. Detroit Hardware’s customers range from longtime residents to the new state-worker neighbors in the Fisher Building. Ella Henderson, 73, has been coming to the store since 1964.

“They’re wonderful people, very helpful,” she said as she walked away from the cash register with some goods.

General Motors Corp. in 2001 moved to the Renaissance Center from its former New Center headquarters, while state agency workers filled in the holes. But foot traffic has picked up since the state replaced GM, Webster said.