A good hardware store is as much the foundation of a neighborhood as a challenging school, a verdant park or a cozy café.
The older the neighborhood, and especially its housing stock, the greater the worth of a handy, knowledgeable place to buy bolts and screws, replace panes or simply seek home repair advice.
In Kingfield, where many homes are in their second century, the go-to hardware store is Nicollet Hardware at 38th & Nicollet.
Hardware stores earn their loyalty with stable, knowledgeable staff and owners. So it’s seismic in a neighborhood like ours when such a store changes hands.
Fortunately, it’s an in-house change in this case. Longtime owners Julene Lind and Steve Rosch, now in their 60s, have sold to veteran employees Elena Nelson and Sam Rosch, Steve and Julene’s son. The deal closed this fall.
It’s the culmination of a succession plan that’s been in the works for five years, guided by a consultant recommended by the Ace hardware chain. And it continues a tradition of female co-ownership that’s still the exception in the hardware business.
That’s something Lind fostered. At 33, Nelson already has 18 years invested in the store where she was hired at age 15. She was looking for a job in the neighborhood and landed one a block from home. It’s the only place she’s ever worked. Lind hired her because she was mature, a quick study and knew neighborhood customers.
Nelson worked full time while earning a college degree in child psychology. But when it was time to look for work in her field, Lind and Rosch sat her down to broach the idea of taking on more responsibility at the store for more pay.
“She’s almost like a daughter to us,” Steve Rosch said. “It was always our dream to have her own the store.”
They were careful not to push Sam, now 25, into the business.
“When I was younger, I had memories of not liking it too much,” he recalled.
He began by stocking the store twice a week in middle school and worked more in high school. But he reserved enough time to play basketball and football at Academy of the Holy Angels. After high school, he tried college before going full time in the store several years ago.
The consultant helped with practical matters, like how to value the business for the sale and making sure that the new owners could establish themselves to a banker as creditworthy. That involved building their financial reserves; one technique was reserved bonuses awarded them as employees.
Fargo native Lind went to work at Nicollet in 1983, after working at another South Minneapolis hardware store, and bought it three years later. Rosch, who had a construction company, joined three years after that. They know the store is at least 80 years old because the Ace chain recognized it for that some years back. One old photo shows cars dating to the 1920s parked in front.
Lind and Rosch nearly quadrupled their store’s size in the mid-1990s, following their philosophy of remaining at least 10 percent of the size of big-box hardware outlets. That expansion took over the adjacent Nicollet Lanes bowling alley. And they didn’t just expand but also recast the store’s public presence with a handsome façade, disregarding naysayers in their business who said it was a waste to dress up a hardware store. Adding parking 15 years ago on the south side of the building was key to remaining at the 38th & Nicollet site.
Lind had only been working for seven years in the hardware business when she bought the store, but she had a yen for entrepreneurship.
“I wanted to be a business owner by the time I was 10 years old,” she recalled.
And it was natural for her to carry the idea of female co-ownership forward. She worked to plant the idea with Nelson.
“A lot of people who are raised in a blue-collar background, it’s not in their wheelhouse,” Lind said.
Nelson’s attitude toward ownership evolved as Lind mentored her. The store has been Lind’s baby, she said, but she’s come to feel like the nanny.
Lind said she’s seen too many hardware store owners resist retirement.
“People work way too long. They’re way too tired. They’re crabby,” she said.
At one point, she thought of retaining ownership but having Nelson and her son run it. But then, she said, “I looked back on what it felt like being an owner and I didn’t want to deny them that. It’s just a different feel when you are the owner.”
Practically speaking, she added, the new owners have largely run the store for the past three years, allowing Lind and Rosch a test run for retirement by sneaking away to warmer winter climes for a couple of months.
The long preparation for the ownership change gave Lind time to prepare emotionally for giving up the store, although she admits getting cold feet at times before the sale closed in September.
The store is small enough that the new owners share many duties, including ordering and walking the sales floor. But Nelson handles more of the computer, personnel and administration. Rosch handles the building maintenance and the repair shop. Both take satisfaction in problem-solving with customers and warding off their bad ideas, such as filling balloons with propane.
Steve Rosch said his son has a knack for solutions: “He’s got a really mechanical brain. That makes him valuable to helping customers.”
Years of helping customers, especially when their intersection went through some lean years, has paid off. Rosch praises millennial-age customers for living what they preach about shopping locally.
“On the weekends, this place has certainly evolved into a destination,” Nelson said. Families pushing strollers pop in to visit the store’s cat or view newly hatched chicks. Dogs earn a treat when they stop by with their owners.
The store supports the values of millennials with such earth-friendly lines such as beekeeping, poultry and composting equipment and supplies. It’s a major donor to the Kingfield Farmers Market. It hosts an annual Rootenanny concert to benefit farmers markets and a petting zoo during Nicollet Open Streets. Longer term, Nelson dreams of a greenhouse-garden center, while Rosch hopes to build business-to-business sales.
Should the new owners hit any snags, they won’t have far to turn for answers. Lind and Rosch have lived above their store for the past five years, where they’ve also rented efficiency apartments there to people, including employees, for well below market rents.
“We’ve stuck with this corner through thick and thin,” Lind said.