July 15, 2013

Small Maine hardware store focuses on 'selling confidence'

With competition from big national chains stores, locals focus on providing critical information.

By PAUL KOENIG Kennebec Journal

FARMINGDALE – Tom Bolster leaned back in his chair in the back office of Gosline's Hardware with his eyes on a small black-and-white TV above his desk.

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Gosline’s Hardware store, owned by Tom Bolster, has been in business in Farmingdale for 27 years, with plans to be open for many more years despite other stores in Maine closing.

Jeff Pouland/Kennebec Journal

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The grainy picture showed the sales floor of his hardware store, and while he wasn't out helping customers, he wanted to keep a lookout in case his employees needed assistance.

Bolster said the 27-year-old store has remained open, despite losing business when the economy fell, by concentrating on a niche and always providing customers with knowledgeable help.

"What we're selling is confidence," Bolster said.

"The guys who work here, we use most of the products we sell," he added.

Other independent hardware stores in Maine haven't fared as well.

The owner of Parks Hardware in downtown Orono recently announced the store is closing at the end of August after more than 120 years in business.

Owner Lin White Jr. said he decided to close because there's just not much call for small neighborhood hardware stores anymore, according to The Associated Press.

He plans on liquidating the inventory and converting the building into multiple retail spaces.

Bolster said he doesn't expect to close Gosline's Hardware anytime soon.

"We'll always be here. I like what I do," he said.

Parks Hardware isn't the only hardware store to announce its doors would be shutting this year.

The Bangor Daily News reported in May that a Gouldsboro hardware store run by its owner for 42 years also will close at the end of August.

And Aubuchon Hardware, with 120 hardware stores in New England and upstate New York, closed its Bangor store at the beginning of this year.

Nationally, hardware store sales remained flat between 2007 and 2011, hovering around $20 billion, according to the U.S. Census.

Recent estimates from the U.S. Census show that May sales from building materials, garden equipment and supplies dealers -- largely made up of hardware stores -- grew more than 10 percent from last year.

Bolster said sales at his Farmingdale store have grown since the Great Recession, but they have been "really sluggish."

He also had to trim his staff from 11 or 12 employees down to five.

Bolster said his competition doesn't come just from big-box home centers such as Lowe's and The Home Depot. Less than 500 feet down Maine Avenue is a True Value store, and two miles away is Harvey's Hardware in Gardiner.

William Harvey, owner of Harvey's Hardware, said there has been steady growth at the 90-year-old business.

He said the housing market crash didn't hurt his store as much as other businesses because people still have bought supplies to make repairs to houses.

"People still aren't buying new, but they're fixing up the old," Harvey said.

He said the backbone of the business is commercial accounts, but sales from individual customers have remained steady as well. He said he has a loyal customer base.

"We're not growing by leaps and bounds, but we're going ahead," Harvey said.

Bolster said customers rely on him and his staff to be knowledgeable about what they're selling and with answering how-to questions.

Never losing focus on the customer base and providing knowledgeable help has kept his business going, Bolster said.

"Obviously you have to remain positive that it will get better," he said. "I know it will."

Paul Koenig can be contacted at 621-5663 or at:

pkoenig@mainetoday.com

 

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