I’m pretty sure that sentiment will make Joel Borwick, the store’s owner for the last 38 years, uncomfortable – though that’s not what’s intended.
I remember the store since before Joel bought it. My dad used to take me there what seemed like every Saturday; when he was working on a project it might be several times per Saturday. Norm would talk to me in a Donald Duck voice, and my dad would give me money for the gumball machine.
Having a store account didn’t seem quaint back then; it’s just the way stores did business. In 1990, when I bought a house here, establishing my own account at Seitz-Agin felt like a second bar mitzvah. Right up until May 21 – when the store accounts were closed out – whoever wrote up my purchase could recite my name and ask, “Is that Fairmount or Cedar?”
Not that it mattered. At least once a year, my bill would get sent to my parents’ house on Fairmount.
Seitz-Agin is part of my own kids’ lives too. As toddlers, all three of them knew that a trip to the hardware store meant the chance to choose a bag of candy and open it right there at the counter – dutifully sharing it with any of the guys who happened to be helping us. Sometimes they’d charge for the candy; often they’d “forget.”
In my mind, I have the most vivid image of one of my twin daughters, age 3 or so, placing an apple-flavored jelly ring into Joel’s giant palm. It’s the kind of everyday moment I wish I’d thought to capture with a camera.
The inventory began to dwindle several years ago, but not critically so. The store still had most of the stuff I needed to keep up my 1927 home; and anything that wasn’t in stock could easily be ordered with the promse, “We’ll have it Wednesday afternoon.” That, as everybody knew, is when the weekly shipment came in from the distribution center.
But eventually, my observations about the inventory affected my buying habits. A couple years ago I needed concrete sealer for my driveway. I probably needed two 5-gallon cans, but hoped to get away with just one. Rather than order two from Seitz-Agin and return one (sticking them with a $60 item that nobody else would buy), I ordered a single can. And when I ran out before finishing the job, I ran to Home Depot to pick up more (which, I noted, was a different package size and cost more per gallon – typical of the way big boxes create the perception of a better deal than you’re actually getting). I wonder which would have actually been better for the business.
When I lost my job in 2009, it had a direct impact on Seitz-Agin. Rather than fall behind in paying my monthly bill and forcing a friendly merchant to be the bank, I cut way back on using the store charge – which means I spent less money. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. I also suppose a number of people did keep using their house accounts even though they couldn’t pay on time. I wonder which is worse for the future of a small, independent merchant.
Late last year, I was looking for something the store didn’t have in stock. I asked, “Can you have it for me Wednesday?” The person helping me – I think it was either Bill or Norm – said, “We don’t have a regular Wednesday shipment.”
It was as if I’d just learned a dear friend had entered hospice care – which turns out to be a fairly accurate simile.
I’ve always been fascinated by retail, and I may have developed a sixth sense about such things. But when people started talking in April about the bare shelves at Seitz-Agin, I felt as if they were noticing something I’d been monitoring for years.
One good friend just sent me a note saying that Seitz-Agin should have adjusted its business over the years, with evening and Sunday hours. It’s hard to deny the sense of this suggestion. Joel wasn’t oblivious to this option; over the years I asked about it a couple times and he always seemed comfortable that it wasn’t the answer.
The last time I talked to Joel about the store’s health was shortly after I learned that the weekly deliveries had been curtailed. He told me that he felt he had survived the impact of Home Depot.
But what he wasn’t sure he could survive is a change he observed in his customers. They just weren’t making repairs anymore the way my father did and the way I do. They had stopped calling for referrals to plumbers and plasterers and furnace guys – old-home experts who bought their supplies from Seitz-Agin.
But I know houses still need to be mainteaned and repaired. Maybe Joel has misread it. Perhaps people are finding their experts through Angie’s List on the internet. Or using Home Depot’s growing installation and repair business. Maybe the big box really has done in Seitz-Agin.
Or, perhaps people really have changed.
Not that it matters. What’s done is done. I’ll start going to Heights Hardware on Coventry – the last independent hardware store in Cleveland Heights, and a business that has been here 50% longer than Seitz-Agin itself.
It won’t be the same because my dad never gave me money for the gumball machine at Heights Hardware. And I never had the pleasure of walking into that store with one of my own toddlers (the last of which is now a teenager with attitude) on my shoulders.
That may be what I’m reacting to most about the closing of Seitz-Agin. It may have less to do with the store than it does the revelation to me – not for the first time – of my own mortality. If more people felt the way I feel, then Seitz-Agin would be thriving and Home Depot would be the one shutting its doors.
Time has passed Seitz-Agin by and I’m afraid I’m not far behind.