How a hardware store survives box stores

Service, knowledge, and having what customers need are the only ways to survive a century as a local business in a world of box stores gone mad, with Amazon, etsy.com, and eBay closing in for the kill. Spend a few hours in Heuser’s and you get the feeling you’re in 'Cheer’s' with fan belts, grass seed, bolt cutters, et al. Bob Hill, Louisville Courier Journal

Bob Hill

Writer and columnist - Louisville Courier Journal

Published 2023-06-21

If you go Heuser’s 100th birthday party will be in front of the store at 523 Spring Street, Jeffersonville, IN 47130, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, June, 24. It will include food, door prizes, and a DJ.

True story. A guy walked into a Jeffersonville hardware store looking for an eight-foot replacement handle for a post-hole digger. The guy had been to several hardware stores across Southern Indiana with no success. He was frustrated, even a little upset at the apparent lack of eight-foot replacement handles for post-hole diggers.

On this day he walked into Heuser Hardware on Spring Street in Jeffersonville – which happens to be celebrating its 100th year in business this year.

He was met in the store by then co-owner Big Bob Weber, who would work at Heuser for 47 years of those 100 years. The guy explained his problem to Weber – the eight-foot-post-hole-handle thing.

Weber had only one question for the guy: 'How many do you want?'

For a century that has become a typical Heuser’s Hardware customer response. It was first authored in 1923 when three men, John W. Kenny, James R. Heuser and Frank Stutzenberger opened Heuser’s at the corner of Eighth and Spring Street, putting up $2,000 total. Soon afterward, Willard Heuser bought out Kenny and joined the owner’s group.

Their mutual business contract was a study in optimism, faith, and business relationships – no lawyers required:

'We find it unnecessary to bind ourselves to any set rules or agreement at this time but feel that all differences that can arise can be settled to satisfy all concerned.

'We will work together, doing our best to give the public perfect satisfaction, thereby assuring ourselves a success.'

Those 48 words - in various phases and through 11 different owners - would hold up the next 100 years.

And still going.

Thriving in an ever-changing world

Jeffersonville, an old river town, once a major staging area for Union troops during the Civil War, had about 10,000 residents in 1930 when Heuser Hardware was moved to a bigger site just down Spring Street. Assuring its success didn’t come easy. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Recessions would follow. The 1937 Flood buried the store tin-ceiling-deep in muddy water. WWII would deplete material and manpower.

Frank Stutzenberger would work at Heuser’s for 48 years, He and his wife lived above the store. They had to climb out a second-story window into a rowboat to be saved from the flood. Some 23 years later – in 1960 - Stutzenberger hired Bob Weber just out of high school for $55 a week.

So it went. Many who came – owners and employees – stayed, worked, swept floors, managed inventory, made deliveries and waited on customers. And passed things on.

As with any successful business, the trick was in names as well as numbers. The men’s sense of place, family and feel-good satisfaction with Heuser’s was best measured by those who stayed with it: Willard Heuser, Bob Weber, Frank Stutzenberger, Bernie Stutzenberger, Charlie Heuser, Larry Rogers, Taylor Jeffries, Jimmy Heuser and Mike Freund. Add it up - 368 years of collective history on Spring Street. Old receipts from the 1930s show sales of 82 and 95 cents.

Then there are the new owners, Tom and Bill Densford, fraternal twins, Jeffersonville High School graduates who bought the store in 2007. They will turn 60 this year. Tom has been at the store for 42 years, Bill for 34 years.

History rolls here. Bernie Stutzenberger hired Tom Densford after about a 15-minute conversation; he knew his family.

'He asked me a couple questions and I was hired,' Densford said of his brief interview and 42-year-career. 'That’s it. That simple.'

Bill Densford had a similar story: 'It was the atmosphere of the place. It’s customer service. We’re friends with lots of people. We know their families and our kids went to school with their kids. All of our owners were able to raise families here. We’re not getting rich but we’re doing OK.'

The Densfords’ business manifesto, written just after they bought the store, reads, in part, like the original 1923 Jimmy Heuser game plan – Chapter Two: 'The hardware store has seen many changes in its history … We’ve have had owners in WWII, the Korean Conflict and Army reserve during the Vietnam War ... We are very proud to be listed with all the men before us and to carry on the dream that Jimmy Heuser had.'

Surviving as a local business in a world of box stores

Service, knowledge, having what customers need are the only ways to survive a century as a local business in a world of box stores gone mad, with Amazon, etsy.com and eBay closing in for the kill. Spend a few hours in Heuser’s and you get the feeling you’re in 'Cheer’s' with fan belts, grass seed and bolt cutters, et al.

Along with the Densfords, the other two current Heuser employees are Keith Lovan, he of the quick wit and wry smile with 33 years in the place, and Kayce Reynolds, the rookie with only eight years of hardware service.

Lovan, a natural store-front greeter, was spending a few minutes with Joan Bland, a retired Jeffersonville fourth-grade teacher in need of help finding just the right light switch. After a brief discussion, she got it.

'I’m here because they know what they are doing,' she explained.

Another very regular customer, David Enlow, had first followed his father, a roofer, into the store when he was four years old. Fifty years later, and a roofer himself, he follows in his father’s footsteps.

'Good people, good products, and good friends,' he explained.

Heuser’s has a sprawling brick front, its interior moving over into spaces once used by a local town doctor, an 1800s millinery, and a state driver’s license bureau. Once in the building the store runs over there, back here, up over there, and around a corner toward a cluttered office and the paint department. A big man-made crack in the cement floor indicates the line where the owners during the 1937 Flood hoped the water might find an outlet as it reached the ceiling.

The store focus is the very old sales desk at the back of the store, where some sales are still processed by hand. The regulars often gather here to harass the working stiffs, tell stories and laugh a lot.

Local is the key. Local contractors haunt the store, which also caters to local residents, local public utilities, local schools, and, as can happen, some business hustled up from the new Ohio River bridge contractors.

The tall shelves are covered with clear plastic packages filled with whatever hardware a customer-in-a-hurry might need. Nails are sold by the pound on an ancient scale. Paint can be had on special order. If Heuser doesn’t have what you need the help is perfectly willing to tell you where else to find it.

No one knows exactly how many thousand pieces of what is in the store – but the owners and employees all know exactly where all are. Inventory is checked and noted almost every day.

Kacey Reynolds, the eight-year employee, had first come into Heuser’s as a kid with his father, a Jeffersonville city employee. He hired on to both learn and teach what fixes what – services he said he never saw at Menards.

'I wanted to be somewhere where I could grow and learn,' he said.

His best hardware story was drywall related. A customer from a property management group came in, and said they were doing some drywall work on a house they were renting out, did not realize the renter had a cat. They only learned after the new wall was up and heard scratching from the inside.

Heuser’s legacy already included a 20-foot mural on the Jeffersonville flood wall, including all the owners. On special days barbeque sandwiches are still sold in the store. Soft drinks are served every day. Popcorn is always free.

And finishing off a bag of that popcorn in Aisle Two while entertaining staff and customers, one George Barber, an outgoing, gregarious man explained he was in Heuser’s that day pretty much because he had some free time and that’s where he wanted to be.

Barber is ex-military, and has seen a few things, especially while working as a federal prison guard at Leavenworth Kansas. Now a pastor, he does counseling at the local St. Stephens Baptist Church preventing people from doing time in federal prisons. He is so much a part of the Heuser family that Bill Densford and his wife went to St. Stephen’s one Sunday to listen to him preach.

Barber compared Heuser’s to a neighborhood barbershop. A place to purchase household items, but mostly to hang out, enjoy community congeniality, and a clean joke. He also likes the free popcorn.

Bob Hill was a Louisville Times and Courier-Journal feature writer and columnist for 33 years.

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