- Associated Press - Sunday, July 26, 2015

BROWNSTOWN, Ind. (AP) - In today’s economy, many family owned and operated small businesses don’t survive.

Unable to compete with big box stores offering a wider selection of products - often at lower prices - these mom and pop places are becoming more of a memory.

But in Brownstown, one store has stood the test of time, keeping its doors open for more than a century.

Brownstown Hardware, located at 110 S. Main St., right across from the Jackson County Courthouse, is celebrating 106 years of business this year.

On June 23, 1909, George H. Beickman and Fred. H. Steinkamp bought a hardware business from Harry Hamilton. They changed the name to Brownstown Hardware Co.

Steinkamp later ended up bringing in George’s son, Ish Beickman, as a partner after George Beickman passed away, and he managed and developed Brownstown Hardware into one of the most modern hardware stores in southern Indiana at the time.

Together, they grew and expanded the business over the years, and also took an active interest in the town, volunteering their time and donating money to causes promoting the growth and development of Brownstown.

Ish Beickman eventually purchased the business from Steinkamp, who retired.

Current owner Wilbert Wessel Jr. began working with Ish Beickman in 1949, Wessel’s daughter, Kim Lucas, said.

After many years of working together, Wessel bought the business from Beickman around 1992, Lucas said.

Now 85, Wessel has passed most of the day-to-day operations to Lucas and her sister, Dena Hutchison, who together, along with Hutchinson’s husband, Ron, and a few other employees, serve the Brownstown community and surrounding areas.

“My dad needed more help here,” Lucas said of quitting her job to work at the hardware store. “My sister came about a year after I started. She was a hair stylist at JC Penney but wanted to be closer to home to be able to spend more time with her family.”

Wessel still calls every day and pops in from time to time with his wife, Donna, to check on things and do a little work, Lucas said. Although blinded in recent years by a medical condition, Donna Wessel also helps out where she can.

“She answers the phone for us, and we have things here for her to do,” Lucas said. “But she worked here all those years with dad, keeping the books.”

Being able to work with her family has been the best part of her job at Brownstown Hardware, Lucas added.

“I wouldn’t have got to see them as much if I hadn’t started working here,” she said.

Hutchison agreed.

“I’m able to stay close to home and help carry out the family business,” she said.

Stepping into the store is like taking a trip to another era, when store owners knew their customers by name and customer service was valued above all else.

That’s something Lucas said the business is still known for today.

“We will help them and wait on them as soon as they come in the door,” she said. “May I help you and then we take them to what they need, they make their purchase and out the door they go. It may be a little quicker for them.”

The aisles are long and narrow and shelves are well stocked with items customers need and didn’t know they needed.

Everything from your expected hardware items, such as paint, nails, screws, hammers and other tools to hunting and fishing equipment, live bait, outdoor patio furniture, canning supplies, pet products, gardening items and camping gear.

Plumbing products are probably the store’s biggest sellers, Lucas said.

But as consumers’ habits change and stores continue to diversify, it hasn’t always been easy to meet the bottom line, Lucas said.

“When my dad worked here, the hardware business was booming. It was good,” she said. “But that was when flower shops sold flowers, hardware stores sold hardware and grocery stores sold groceries. That has changed over the years. You couldn’t buy hardware stuff at other stores, but now you can.”

Lucas said the business was hit the hardest when Wal-Mart first came to Seymour.

“It took us a couple of years to recover from that,” she said. “Then it was the supercenter and then Home Depot came to town and people can drive to Lowe’s.”

Competition with big box stores is why many small businesses end up closing, she added.

“We don’t have the choices they have,” she said. “There’s like 30 hammers and 40 screwdrivers and 25 tool sets. We have those things, too, but we just don’t have a lot of choices.”

“It’s been difficult,” Hutchison said. “Just trying to stay current has probably been our biggest challenge.”

Like Union Hardware in Seymour, Brownstown Hardware is affiliated with Do It Best Hardware, which supplies the stores with its products.

“We have lots of different things. We don’t have large quantities of any one thing,” Lucas said. “If you wanted 25 coolers, I have two in stock maybe, but I can order them, if you’re willing to wait a week. We just need to know what you need ahead of time.”

To provide extra value to customers, Brownstown Hardware has added several services over the years, too.

In the back of the store is a work area for employees to make copies of keys for customers or repair broken screens. The business also makes home, farm and business service calls.

Tammie Craig-Niewedde, who lives in Brownstown, said patronizing Brownstown Hardware and supporting other small local businesses is something that she learned growing up.

“My grandmother had done business with them for decades,” Craig-Niewedde said of the hardware store. “She’s 99 now, but she always insisted on local independent stores when it was available. She always used them for household needs - swore by them. I’ve carried the tradition as much as possible.”

A hardware business has existed in Brownstown for much longer than 106 years.

The brick building that currently houses Brownstown Hardware was built in 1898 by George Fassold after a fire wiped out the north half-block of buildings opposite the courthouse, according to records.

Fassold’s name can still be seen on the brick façade of the building.

Opening in the building at that time was a hardware store owned by Frank Brodhecker and D.B. Vance. They sold the business to Ray R. Keach, who sold it to Harry Hamilton around 1906.

But even before the devastating fire, there was some type of hardware business there, Lucas said.

“At least that’s what we understand, from what little records we can find,” she said.

Lucas said it’s hard for people to understand why they’ve kept the business going after all these years.

But she can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“I’ve always lived here, my life, in Brownstown,” she said. “Actually, I wouldn’t know where else to live. This is home. This is where I want to be.”

In a small community, everyone knows each other, she added.

“I know the people,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to walk outside and wave hi to people you know.”

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Source: The (Seymour) Tribune, https://bit.ly/1LuWOWN

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Information from: The (Seymour) Tribune, https://www.tribtown.com

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