Surrounded by 'for sale' signs, Depot Building Supply co-owner Bryan Neal contemplates what he will do with the building and property after his store in Lexington, S.C., closes.
Kim Kim Foster-Tobin / MCT Enlarge
COLUMBIA, S.C. - For three years, Terry Reynolds has watched sales dwindle at his West Columbia, S.C., ACE Hardware store.
And he has mourned as other South Carolina hardware stores have chained their doors for the last time - including three that are closing in the next few weeks in Richland and Lexington, S.C.
"We get tired of fighting and trying to survive," Mr. 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.
Mr. Reynolds said he believes his community needs a local hardware store - even if his store has a Lowe's or Home Depot within five miles of it in three 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.
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.
The economy took its toll on Tom Neal, 70, who has owned Depot Building Supply in Lexington, S.C., for 32 years with his family. The store - just a few miles down U.S. 1 from a cluster of national chains - will close in the next few weeks as he sells off the last of his inventory.
"It was hard enough when the big boxes moved in," Mr. Neal said. "The last two years, it's been terrible."
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.
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, Mr. Scott 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.