By BRADEN LAMMERS
It’s difficult for a small business be a sustained success. It’s even more unusual if that business has endured a number of hardships, like several major floods, a depression, a recession and an ever-changing customer base.
It makes it even more remarkable that Heuser Hardware will celebrate its 90th anniversary Saturday. The hardware store at 523 Spring St., which opened its doors in 1923, has become somewhat of a local landmark in Jeffersonville, and the owners plan to keep it that way.
Co-owners Larry Rogers, Tom Densford and Bill Densford each have several decades of experience working in the 90-year-old store. Rogers said he started working at the store in 1970 and bought into the store in the early 1990s. Tom Densford has been an employee since 1981, his brother Bill since 1989. They bought their share of the store in 2007.
Rogers said a lot has changed during his time at the store, but it’s what has not changed that continues to draw the customers back.
“It’s definitely part of the community,” he said. “I just think so many people depend on us.”
He said just the word Heuser’s in Jeffersonville carries a reputation with the area’s residents.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on taking care of the community,” Tom Densford said. “You make lifelong friends here, which we have. A lot of people still come in here and say they come in here because you can get service and get taken care of.”
That approachability and friendliness is apparent after stepping into the store. On a Wednesday afternoon, four employees, including the three owners, were joined by several customers coming in and out. A few lingered around longer than they needed to share a joke or chat.
Longtime voice of Jeffersonville High School Athletics Ted Throckmorton wasn’t there to purchase anything, but was hanging out behind the cash register joking with the employees.
“I just feel like we’re friendly and we don’t know a stranger,” Rogers said. “We just like helping people. I hear it more when they leave, ‘I’ll be back,’ and they do, they come back.”
THE HEUSER DIFFERENCE
There’s not a lot of frills to be seen when customers walk into Heuser Hardware. There’s no featured display with the shiny new lawnmower at the end of each row, there aren’t 15 different stainless-steel grills that could accommodate an entire cow, and the space is not the size of four airport hangars lined up end-to-end.
What is inside the three-room building that is less than 10,000 square feet are rows of what any do-it-yourselfer would need. Crammed into the rooms are a series of shelves that line the store with plumbing supplies, tools, glue and everything else someone would expect to find in a hardware store.
Step to your right past the counter and the room is filled with yard tools, larger hand tools, sledgehammers, axes and a trash can filled with grass seed sitting in the center of the room.
Step to your left past the counter and there are countless cans of spray paint, gallons of interior and exterior house paint and everything necessary to apply a new coat. Along the top of the wall, near the cash register, is a glimpse of the store’s history in a row of pictures over the years.
Aside from the quaintness, being a small shop has its advantages.
“We can get people in and out of here fast,” Tom Densford said.
He added that customers don’t have to park a mile away, walk around a massive store and search for someone to help them.
“We’d love to change that big-box mentality,” Tom Densford said. “It’s not what everybody thinks it is. They’ll bring you in and take a loss on an item and everybody that goes in there thinks, ‘Wow, everything’s going to be cheap like that,’ but it’s not.
“We go head-to-head with them on price.”
Clark County resident Russ White he said he comes back because, “I’m comfortable here.”
White, who formerly owned AC Upholstery in Jeffersonville, said he has had an account at the store since the 1960s.
“Just about all your small businesses have an account here,” Rogers said of the store’s customer base.
He added that there are a lot of regular customers that come into the store, who in the past were small business owners and local handymen. While that has changed to contractors and individuals, Heuser Hardware still has a steady stream of regulars.
“They’re convenient and they always have everything I want,” White said of why he keeps coming back. “And if they don’t have it, they just say, ‘Here, take these two and see if one works, and then come back and pay for that one.’”
That’s exactly what happened Wednesday. White was in the store looking for a pipe that fit over another pipe he already had. Tom Densford handed over a small section of pipe and said, “See if that works for you.”
There was no charge and out the store White went, knowing he would be back whether it worked for him or not.
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE
While Rogers and the Densfords have come to rely on their regulars, including daily visits from city workers buying supplies, they both said they are searching for new customers.
Tom Densford admitted that the downturn in the economy and the transition of businesses in and out of downtown has taken its toll on the hardware store. But now, with the economy starting to recover, Heuser Hardware also has seen its bottom line improve.
“Over the past couple years, I’ve noticed a resurgence,” Tom Densford said. “We weathered the storm and weathered it well.”
Part of that resurgence has been a reinvigoration of downtown Jeffersonville.
“I’ve noticed, here as of late, a lot of your younger generation are moving back downtown and are redoing these old homes,” he said.
Rogers agreed and said that when people moved downtown, they discovered the store and became customers. However, he added he is still trying to build up that younger customer base, which has proven to be difficult. He said that younger people tend to shop later in the evenings, and while the store has tried to stay open later, there is not enough demand to justify the extra hours.
Another market Rogers hopes to reach is the female do-it-yourselfers. He said the store is not an exclusionary boys club and welcomes anyone into the store.
One trend that has helped the store is the “Buy Local” campaign, encouraging people to shop at local, independent businesses.
“The last couple years have been down a little bit, but it’s picked up this year,” Rogers said.
He added Heuser Hardware repairs and makes a lot of screens and windows, the store will cut and thread pipe to order, has a healthy special-order business and cuts more than 100 keys every day.
And while he enjoys what he is doing, Rogers said he will probably retire by the end of 2014. When he does, don’t expect him to sell his share of the store to anyone who wouldn’t want its 90-year tradition to continue.
There are already two co-owners to whom he would likely pass the torch.
“I don’t want to work anywhere else,” Tom Densford said. “I wake up looking forward to going to work; we enjoy it still. We just made a lot of friends and we look forward to coming in every day.
“Every person you wait on, it’s a different situation and that’s what’s fun about it. You don’t have the same thing day-in, day-out.”