For owner Anne Shom, the decision is bittersweet
Tina Johnson isn’t sure where she’ll go the next time she needs a hard-to-find part for her Victorian house or wants her gardening tools sharpened.
For more than two decades, she found almost everything she needed for her home and garden – complete with a hearty helping of friendly service and advice – at Rex Hardware & Glass, located at 2601 Lyndale Ave. S. But after more than 61 years of business, the small, community hardware store closed Dec. 31.
“A lot of people are just sick about them leaving,” Johnson said, adding that the store on the corner of Lyndale Avenue and 26th Street long had been a beloved fixture in the community.
But for no one is the store’s closing more bittersweet than owner Anne Shom, who bought Rex Hardware with her husband, Bernie, in 1944. For years, she watched the changes that resulted as big-box hardware stores moved into the Twin Cities and the neighborhood evolved from one full of homeowners to one dominated by renters. While the outside world evolved, Rex Hardware – with its hardwood floors, wooden screen door, cluttered aisles and mom-and-pop atmosphere – remained largely unchanged. Bright yellow-and-blue vintage signs advertised the store’s trademark services: custom glass cutting, blade sharpening and picture framing.
“We sharpen everything but your wits,” read a sign at the front of the store.
People periodically stopped by and offered to buy the store, especially after her husband died in 1983. Yet Shom continued to brush aside the thought of selling Rex Hardware until a year ago. By then, she had reached an age where retirement was a necessity.
“Every time I looked in the mirror, I thought it might be time,” Shom said.
Because her only child, a daughter, did not want to take over the store, Shom knew she had to sell it. But she never put Rex Hardware up for sale.
“I just kept listening, as you might say, as people stopped in and talked about buying it,” she said.
It was important to Shom that whoever bought the store kept it as a community venue, so she sold it to the owners of the French Meadow Bakery & Café, located nearby at 2610 Lyndale Ave. S. French Meadow founder and President Lynn Gordon said no decision has been made regarding the 4,600-square-foot property. She had envisioned putting in an organic home store – with sheets, towels, mattresses and other goods – but now is considering renting it. She said she would only lease it to someone with a vision for a community-based business.
“I like the idea of maintaining the Rex philosophy,” Gordon said.
No matter what fills the space, it will be hard for Shom to know it is not the small hardware shop that provided for her family and was her husband’s pride and joy.
“I can remember my husband saying, ‘The saddest day of my life will be when I have to close this store.’ I understand that now,” Shom said.
Bernie had just returned from World War II when the young couple purchased Rex Hardware in 1944, at the suggestion of Anne’s father.
Shom smiled as she recalled that neither she nor her husband knew a thing about operating a hardware store. But Bernie had a business degree from the University of Minnesota and was determined to learn everything he could about selling bolts and bandsaws.
“Did we know what we were doing? Absolutely not,” Shom said with a smile. “But my husband proceeded to learn as much as he could. And learn he did.”
Bernie relied on books and the advice of his wholesale suppliers to get him started. That, combined with the personal service the couple worked to give each customer, turned their first business venture into a 61-year career and the shop into a neighborhood landmark.
Bernie primarily ran the store, but Anne was deeply involved, as well. Together, they made sure Rex Hardware remained a small, family-friendly business. The store’s hours always were 8 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Shom is quick to point out that it was never open on Sundays – the day, she said firmly, that is meant for rest.
“We wanted a family life for ourselves and for all of the people who worked here,” Shom said.
The number of employees always fluctuated depending on how well business was going.
“We’ve had young people, and we’ve had some older people. But all of them have helped me without fail,” Shom said, adding that the dedication of countless employees was crucial to the shop’s success over the years.
Right before Rex Hardware closed, Shom had six employees working for her. Several employees stayed with Rex Hardware for years, such as Don Hilger. He started working at Rex Hardware in the spring of 1988. He retired in 2000, but continued working weekends to help with the “Saturday rush” of customers. He returned full-time in November, after another longtime employee passed away.
“I’m going to miss this place,” Hilger said. “When I need a knife sharpened, where am I going to do it?”
Johnson also said she’s going to miss having great service and hard-to-find hardware supplies so close by. “It seems like they had just about anything you would need.”
But Hilger said after years of business, it was “just a matter of time” before Shom had to sell the store. And while Shom looks back at the store’s run fondly, she admits that things haven’t always been easy. Big-box retailers offering home supplies had an undeniable impact on Rex’s business when those behemoths began emerging in the mid-1980s, Shom said. Rex Hardware could offer quality customer service and hard-to-find parts, but the larger stores could offer endless aisles of a single item at cheap prices.
Another trend had a great impact, as well: the slow evolution of a neighborhood full of homeowners to one dominated by renters. People who rented relied on their landlords to fix and keep up their homes, and management companies went from buying supplies at hardware stores to relying on cleaning and caretaker services. None of the changes was good for business at Rex Hardware, Shom said.
“Homeownership is basic to a hardware store,” she said.
There were 7,270 housing units in Whittier – the neighborhood where Rex Hardware is located – in 2000, 400 fewer than in 1980. Almost 40 percent of the neighborhood’s 348 acres were used for multifamily housing as of 2004, and almost 90 percent of those housing units are renter-occupied, according to statistics from the city of Minneapolis. The neighborhood’s increased crime and poverty also led to more vacancies in the apartment buildings and a changed atmosphere, Shom said. But she is quick to point out that Rex Hardware never had any trouble with any of its neighbors.
“We never had an act of violence or unfriendliness even once,” she said.
And she and Bernie always got along well with the owners of other hardware stores in the area. Shom can still recall their names – Hennepin Hardware Company and Barret Hardware – and shakes her head as she points out that none is around any longer.
“We all seemed to make a living and get along,” Shom said.
The thought of Rex Hardware joining the list of other community hardware stores that have closed is hard for Shom to come to terms with.
“It’s very, very difficult emotionally,” she said, adding that it will be as hard to leave her employees and customers as the store itself. “Like my husband always said, ‘These people aren’t really customers, they’re my friends.’”
Several Rex Hardware employees will help the new owners hold an inventory-reduction sale, French Meadow Vice President Steve Shapiro said. While the plans for the store are uncertain, Shapiro said the building will be renovated as soon as the sale is over, and he hopes to have some form of business in the space by May. He would like to keep the custom-framing and glass-cutting services Rex Hardware offered in some form with the new store, he said, and would keep several of the hardware store employees on hand to help with that.
“We will have a different type of merchandise, but we want to keep much of the feel of Rex Hardware,” Shapiro said.
Shom did not publicize the closing of the store. Instead, she sent charge customers notices about the closing and relied on word-of-mouth to alert other regulars. But as customers heard the news, many stopped in to see how Shom was doing and bid their farewells to Rex Hardware.
“I [hadn’t] had so many hugs and kisses in, oh, I don’t know how long,” Shom said. “And given, too.”