- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - A customer had a question about his bathroom sink. The drain kept clogging. Would he need to replace the pipes?

Henry Pitman, who has worked 35 years at Marien Pro Hardware, a cluttered mom-and-pop store on the Southside, began asking questions.

“Do you shave in the sink?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Dick Miller.

“Do you ever pull up the plug and rinse it all out real hard?” Pitman asked.

“Yes,” Miller said. “Do I need to put a snake down the drain?”

No, Pitman told him. Just go under the sink, remove the trap, take it outside and flush it out with a garden hose. “If that doesn’t work, let me know,” he said.

Miller walked out of the store, happy that he didn’t have to spend $50, $100 or more for new pipes.

And Pitman was happy he could help a regular customer.

But Marien Pro Hardware might be paying the ultimate cost for years of dispensing helpful, money-saving tips.

The store is just a month or two from closing up shop after 87 years in business at the corner of Madison and Norton avenues, about four miles south of Monument Circle.

It’s the latest casualty in the battle for survival among independent hardware stores, who are trying to fight it out, sale by sale, one plumbing fixture or 30-cent bolt at a time, against national chains and big-box stores.

The war has been going on for more than 30 years, and the surprising thing is not that Marien is closing, but that it has lasted so long.

The company, with a single location in a cramped store that also used to serve as the Marien family’s home, rang up sales last year of only about $60,000.

That’s about one-tenth of what it used to bring in in the 1980s, said John Marien, owner and grandson of founder Frank Marien, when it could regularly count on annual sales of $500,000, and even enough business to keep seven workers hopping.

The store lost $45,000 last year and hasn’t turned a profit in more than a decade, he said.

“I’ve been subsidizing the business,” he said last week. “I just like doing this. But it’s time to quit. There’s no money in it anymore.”

Across the country, hundreds of independent hardware stores have shut their doors in the past decade, although exact numbers are hard to come by.

The North American Retail Hardware Association, based in Indianapolis, said it doesn’t keep figures on independent hardware stores.

According to the 2007 U.S. Economic Census, the number of independent hardware stores fell by 854 between 2002 and 2007, the latest figures available. That left about 12,000 independent hardware stores in business at the time.

For years, business advisers have warned small shopkeepers that it would be tougher and tougher to compete against national retailers, who could pressure suppliers to provide deep discounts and spread overhead costs across hundreds or thousands of stores.

In the hardware business, that means that small shops not only have to offer top-flight customer service but look for ways to boost sales beyond traditional hardware, which is often a break-even or money-losing business.

At Sullivan Hardware, with two locations in Indianapolis and a third in Cicero, the formula has been to expand into lawn and garden supplies, patio furniture, grills, Christmas items and gifts. Today, hardware makes up only 18 percent of the company’s sales.

“Years ago, you just had to sell hardware and lumber, and everyone was happy,” owner Pat Sullivan said. “That’s not going to cut it anymore.”

At the H.A. Waterman Co. hardware store on Southeastern Avenue, the company tries to stay competitive by offering lawn-mower repairs and selling bird feeders, statues and crafts.

Manager Connie Waterman said business is steady at the 134-year-old company, although it’s not raking in big profits.

“We’re paying our bills and staying in business,” she said. “God keeps it alive. That’s all I can say.”

At Marien Pro Hardware, there are indications almost everywhere you look of a business that has fallen on tough times and is trying to wind things down as fast as possible. Huge banners reading “Store Closing” and “1/2 Sale” cover the front of the old building. One of the first things you see when you enter the store is a card table set up with For Sale leaflets.

The narrow aisles are packed with displays. But in two recent visits, only five customers were seen. At one point, four employees were sitting in chairs or on low display cases in a back room.

Marien is not only liquidating its inventory, but looking for a buyer for the 2.8-acre property. So far, there have been a few lookers, but no hard offers, said John Marien, 69, who has worked at the store for most of his life.

The financial problems have been pulling the company down for about two decades, he said, as bigger stores have opened around town, offering lower prices.

Decades ago, he could count on contractors and other commercial accounts to keep him busy and the inventory turning. But many of them have gone to Menard’s or Lowe’s Home Improvement stores with their business.

So the customer base at Marien has shrunk to homeowners looking for a box of nails, a rake or a hose clamp. Some customers come in for a hard-to-find item, like an old hinge.

There’s a good chance they will find it. The older part of the store is an ancient house, with a dozen or more rooms on three levels, crammed to the gills with displays of nuts, bolts, clamps, keys, tools and a thousand other items.

Walk through the store, and you might feel you’ve walked onto a movie lot from the 1940s. An ancient scale sits on one counter. Antique tools line the walls.

A few decades ago, the family built a 3,000-square-foot addition, in the form of a small warehouse with industrial shelving, to handle the overflow.

For decades, the Marien family was able to support the family, hire a few friends and make a decent profit. An earlier generation of Mariens lived upstairs in the older part of the store, before that was cleared out to make way for storage.

But ask John Marien when the last time was that the company made money, and he’ll wince.

“Probably back in the 1990s,” he said. “But we decided to just keep going.”

The store doesn’t have a firm closing date set. There’s still an enormous amount of inventory to clear out. But the family hopes to have everything wrapped up in a few months.

Then there will be one less small hardware store in Indianapolis to help customers figure out how to keep their bathroom sinks from clogging.

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Source: The Indianapolis Star, https://indy.st/1HdyUgE

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com


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