COLUMBIA, S.C. — For three years, Terry Reynolds has watched sales dwindle at his West Columbia 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.

“We get tired of fighting and trying to survive,” 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. 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 different 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.

“They can come in and say, ‘I woke up this morning and didn’t have water. What’s wrong with my well?’ We’ll kind of walk them through it,” said James Rimer, who owns the 34-year-old Blythewood Feed and Hardware with his mother, Neysa, in Blythewood, S.C. “That’s something they’re not really going to find somewhere else.”

The local hardware store is a slice of Americana that is quickly fading as large chains have swooped into smaller communities and as customers have put their wallets under lock and key in a lasting economic downturn.

“I’ve never seen it this bad sustained for coming up on two years,” said Rimer, who has seen customer spending drop an average of 10 percent this year.

The ones that survive, said Scott Wright, spokesman for the North American Retail Hardware Association, 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.

“It’s service and product know-how, whereas they might not be able to get that from the big-box retailers,” Wright said. “When your toilet breaks, you need to fix it. You can’t wait for the economy to improve.”

But as some struggling hardware stores close down, others are preparing to fight for customers and their limited dollars.

“Business overall is down. It’s nowhere close to where it was last year or the year before,” said Ronnie Boland, who operates Boland’s True Value Hardware in Chapin, S.C. “We’ve got to find ways of doing business that we haven’t done before.”

Boland recently broke ground on a 20,000-square-foot building about a mile closer to the Ballentine side of Chapin.

“It was either move or get ready to face the demise,” Boland said.

Boland will create a softer hardware store to appeal more to women, who often control the purse strings in a home, research has shown. The store – a new Destination True Value model – will put an emphasis on home decor, paint and kitchen fixtures, Boland said.

“It’s got a lot of dream aisles – an opportunity to dream about, ‘How will this look in my house?”‘ he said. “But we’ll still have all the good-old-boy hardware we always had right down to the brass valves and nuts and bolts. In fact, we’ve got more nuts and bolts.”

“I think we found a fine line we can survive on,” Boland said.