Twelve times in one hour Friday morning, customers ask owner Mark Wenner when he’ll finally close the doors at the Browns Point Ace Hardware.
The answer: May. Sometime probably by late May.
Billie, the store shih tzu, settles into a slice of sunshine falling onto the welcome mat just inside the front door.
Customers have learned to step around the dog.
When she heard the news about the closure, Browns Point customer Judy Findley said, “I went home and cried.”
She turns to Wenner.
“I don’t think you get how important you’ve been to this community,” she said.
“This is the saddest thing,” said customer Matt Jenkins.
“If Mark sees that you’re feeling bad, he gives you a hug,” said Findley. “This tears a chunk out of the community. He’s a rock.”
“He’s not a rock. He’s a boulder,” said Jenkins. “He’s just a staple of the Browns Point community.”
“Everything I’ve ever needed, he has,” said Findley. “Then he tells you how to use it.”
She turns back to Wenner, who stands behind the cash register.
“I can’t imagine life without you,” she said.
It’s been like that since he made the announcement, Wenner said.
But it must happen.
“We just felt it necessary,” Wenner said. “Business has gotten a little bit quiet. The cost of business has gone up. The amount of money it takes day-to-day; we are just not able to make that number. We’re down 15 percent over the year. It just never came back after the recession. The years 1991 to 1996 were the best brick-and-mortar retail years.”
Big box stores have played a part in the sales decline, as has Internet shopping, Wenner said.
But still, he said, “It’s been a wonderful, great 24-year experience.”
Future plans are unclear. Wenner will likely not remain as a franchisee in the retail hardware business, nor will he retire.
“I’ve had a couple of great opportunities come my way since I announced,” he said.
Browns Point postmistress Kim Wenner, Mark’s sister, manages the pocket post office at the back of the store.
“Tell people we’re moving to the old liquor store,” she said.
Her new post office will feature more mailboxes, which are in demand, she said, because of mailbox thefts in the area.
She’ll call her store “Postal & More at the Point.”
“I’m exploring a contract with UPS, and I’m thinking of Amazon lockers,” she said.
She’s been hearing people talk about her brother.
“They call Mark the mayor of Browns Point,” she said. “With the things people have been telling me, I’m proud to be his sister. We have a lot of older folks come in, and he has just helped them so much.”
“The trend in hardware — it’s having a larger facility where you can provide a little bit more, to have some lumber and a little more plumbing,” Mark said.
“Ace has been really helpful, but there’s only so much they can do,” he said.
Actually, Ace Hardware itself has lately been doing quite well.
In its latest annual report, the company reports $5.05 billion in total revenues — representing “the best financial performance in Ace’s history.”
The company added 226 stores to its global portfolio, and same-store sales were up 4.6 percent on the year companywide. Net income reached $156.2 million, up from $141.3 in 2014.
Meanwhile, back inside the store, Denny Berard of Browns Point sits in the “conversation chair.”
It’s an old Adirondack chair worn smooth.
“I’ve known Mark, I’ve known all three of his girls,” Berard said.
“You can find out what’s going on,” he continues. “If you want the latest gossip, Mark has a bionic nose. This is a congregating place. I come up here two times a day, sometimes three times. It’s like an old country store.”
He recounts the first time he and Mark met, when the store opened in October, 1991.
Berard came in saying he needed some plywood. Wenner did not sell plywood, but he understood the importance of customer service.
“Mark lent me his pickup so I could buy the plywood at Home Depot,” Berard said.
Even owners can show the occasional tear.
“They’ve seen my kids grow up,” Wenner said, his voice on the edge of breaking.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of great friends,” he said. “These 24 years have been awesome. Everything’s OK. It’s going to be hard, there’s no question.”
There’s talk of some kind of a party come May, to say goodbye.
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535