For three years, Terry Reynolds has watched sales dwindle at his Three Fountains ACE Hardware store.
And he has mourned as other Midlands hardware stores have chained their doors for the last time — including three that are closing in the next few weeks in Northeast Richland and Lexington.
"We get tired of fighting and trying to survive," Reynolds said.
The thought of whether he will be next is always sitting on a back shelf, but it's not an option he wants to think about. Reynolds said he believes his community needs a local hardware store — even if his store has a Lowe's or The Home Depot within five miles of it in three different directions.
Beyond the bolts and brass knobs, the mom and pop hardware store sells itself on service and specialty products. It is a place where shoppers can find a mishmash of garden gnomes, garbage disposals and good advice.
"They can come in and say, 'I woke up this morning and didn't have water. What's wrong with my well?' We'll kind of walk them through it," said James Rimer, who owns 34-year-old Blythewood Feed and Hardware with his mother, Neysa. "That's something they're not really going to find somewhere else."
The local hardware store is a slice of Americana that is quickly fading as large chains have swooped into smaller communities over the past couple of decades and as customers have put their wallets under lock and key in a lasting economic downturn.
"I've never seen it this bad sustained for coming up on two years," said Rimer, who has seen customer spending drop an average of 10 percent this year.
Sales at hardware stores and home centers nationwide were down in 2009 for the first time in recent memory, said Scott Wright, spokesman for the North American Retail Hardware Association, an Indiana-based trade group. He said sales dipped 6 percent to $203.3 billion. At the same time, an estimated 550 hardware stores and home centers closed nationwide between 2005 and 2009.
The ones that survive, he said, carve out a niche as the place to go for advice — and parts — to complete home projects and make emergency repairs, which more customers are attempting to do themselves in a down economy.
"It's service and product know-how, whereas they might not be able to get that from the big box retailers," Wright said. "When your toilet breaks, you need to fix it. You can't wait for the economy to improve."
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