Hardware store closing displays small town retail struggles

Barry Adams
Wisconsin State Journal
In this Jan. 22, 2019, photo Mike Hausmann, who owned the Poynette True Value Hardware store from 1994 to 2004, looks over the dwindling inventory at the store, which is going out of business, in Poynette, Wis.

POYNETTE, Wis. (AP) - The butcher shop, grocery stores and other retailers that years ago helped create a thriving hub of commerce have vanished from this village's downtown.

The library is here, along with a chiropractic office, a couple of beauty salons, the Frontier Bar and, a few yards away, the Harmony Bar, where bobble heads line the front window. United Community Bank shares an intersection with a Karate America, Village Hall and A Thousand Words Photography, while the Poynette Inch United Methodist Church and the First Presbyterian Church, established in 1867, anchor both ends of Main Street. Even the Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and Webelos have their own building, as does the Poynette Historical Society, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

There is no place for a morning cup of coffee and a side of toast. There is no shoe store or clothing store or even a gift shop. Instead, the retail in this community has moved over the years to Highway 51 on the village's east side. There's a Piggly Wiggly, Hometown Pharmacy, a floral shop, a couple of convenience stores and the Owl's Nest, a supper club in every way, where the offerings include fish, prime rib and handmade onion rings. A Dollar General opened in 2016.

But in a few weeks, one of the staples of this village of 2,494 people in southern Columbia County will close its doors and leave a gaping retail void that will be difficult to replace. The Poynette True Value Hardware had been located in the village's downtown but in 1987 moved into a new building on Highway 51. The 4,000-square-foot store is on the small side but over the last 32 years has offered the typical hardware-store inventory and has been a key pit stop for local businesses and homeowners in need of a gallon of paint, length of rope or a fitting to repair a leaking toilet. There are hand tools and power tools, fishing tackle, fan belts and trailer hitch accessories.

"Do I want to drive to Madison or Portage?" asked Shaun Lapacek, who opened Rock N Wool Winery about five years ago a few miles north of the village. "It's not a good thing. You need places like this."

In this Jan. 22, 2019, photo a bin offers a wide assortment of nails for customers at True Value Hardware in Poynette, Wis.

Lapacek, who uses only Wisconsin grapes to make his wines, was in the store recently where he picked up tent stakes, a construction square and a pair of plastic jugs for gas and diesel fuel.

Mike Hausmann wandered the depleted aisles and spent time chatting with owner Randy Schultz at the front counter. Hausmann, 79, owned the hardware store from 1994 to 2004.

"People go to a hardware store because they have a definite need," Hausmann said. "There were 14,000 items in here and 99 percent of the time that people walked in here, they found what they needed. Well, that's going to be gone. And they'll be hard-pressed to ever get it back."

Unfortunately, Poynette is not an anomaly when it comes to small Wisconsin communities losing their hardware stores. Rio, Pardeeville and Wyocena, all within a 15-minute drive of Poynette, are absent hardware stores. In Cross Plains west of Madison, the hardware store was bulldozed in 2016 to make way for an apartment building, and Punzel's Hardware in Jefferson closed in 2014 after 55 years in business.

A multi-store blow came late last year when the owners of World of Variety, founded in 1971, announced they would be going out of business and closing its stores, which carried hardware supplies, in Fennimore, Boscobel, Cross Plains and Mount Horeb. The announcement came two years after the company closed stores in Verona and Darlington.

In this Jan. 22, 2019, photo a person walks by the Poynette True Value Hardware in Poynette, Wis.

"Big box" retailers like Walmart, Menards and Home Depot have all played a role in the demise of local hardware stores, and the closings haven't been isolated to smaller communities. In Madison, for example, the 8,000-square-foot Ace Hardware store in the Meadowood Shopping Center on Raymond Road closed in 2012 after 25 years in business. In 2013, the Dorn family shuttered its 13,000-square-foot True Value store in the Northgate Shopping Center on the city's North Side and closed its store next to Capitol Centre Market in downtown Madison after the building was purchased by Mitch Eveland so he could expand his grocery store.

Then, in spring of last year, the Ace Hardware on Cottage Grove Road closed. It had opened in 2007 after the Dorn True Value Hardware store closed after a 10-year run. The site had also been home to a Meikle's True Value Hardware and before that, C&P Hardware in the 1960s. The space, for now, is the temporary home of the Pinney branch of the Madison Public Library, until a library is built at nearby Royster's Corners.

But in Poynette, Schultz, who purchased the hardware store in 2006 after doing route sales for 20 years for Pepsi-Cola and a six-year stint with the Columbia County Highway Department, said his struggles with selling hardware were amplified when Dollar General opened. He lost sales of household items and cleaning products and had to adjust his inventory accordingly.

The opening of a Mill's Fleet Farm late last year hasn't helped. Schultz, who owns his building, had been trying to sell the business and the $220,000 in inventory for the past three years. He had contacted other local hardware company owners and thought he had a buyer just before Christmas but the deal fell through. Schultz, 64, eyeing retirement, is now liquidating and has the building listed at $320,000.

"I can't complain about the business over the last 10 or 11 years but just this last year has been terrible," said Schultz, who was born on a farm in DeForest and graduated from Sun Prairie High School. "It's been hard. But most of my customers work in Madison. But the businesses (in Poynette) are the ones that are going to feel it. Because they're going to have to pay their employees to drive to Portage or to Lodi or DeForest to go get a nut and bolt."

In this Jan. 22, 2019, photo Randy Schultz, left, owner of the store, checks out the purchases made by Shaun Lapacek, co-owner of Rock N Wool Winery just north of the village, at True Value Hardware in Poynette, Wis.

What is now Poynette is where Wallis Rowan built a log cabin in 1833 in what is now Old Settlers Park. The creek that runs under South Main Street is named after Rowan but the village was supposed to be called Paquette in honor of Peter Paquette, a Native American trader and interpreter, but through a clerical error in the U.S. Post Office department, the post office there was called "Poynette," according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The village is home to a curling club, while one of its biggest employers is Poynette Ironworks. The company was founded in 1996 and is now one of the the largest independently owned manufacturers of metal refuse containers in the Midwest. The company has a 94,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and employs more than 80 people, according to its website.

Another major asset in the village is its schools. In November, voters in the Poynette School District approved a $28.4 million referendum to build a new elementary school, make safety and security improvements and remodel and update science and technical education areas at the high school, among other improvements.

Brent Harris, vice president of the Poynette Area Chamber of Commerce, has owned and operated an insurance office in downtown Poynette since 2017. The school referendum will help attract families to the community but he said local businesses are also critical. They provide goods and services and in return also support local organizations and nonprofits. He has purchased all of his tools for the office and bird feeders and feed at the Poynette hardware store but will now have to go elsewhere.

"You can save $3 on a $100 drill and give the money to a huge 'big box' corporation that's going to do nothing in return to help our community," Harris said of shopping at national chains or buying insurance from agents not in the village. "If people want to go that route, I don't blame them. Just don't come to the small businesses and ask us to support everything under the sun if they are not willing to support us. It's frustrating. We want this community to grow and be more than just a suitcase community."