Garren Dent, Owner
Village Do It Best Hardware
106 West Ferry, Berrien Springs
Interviewed by Scott Moncrieff
When you were a little kid, did you tell your parents “when I grow up I want to own a hardware store” ?
No—but it does seem that we were destined for retail. My dad managed the University Market, which was where the bookstore is now, only it was about half that size. And to take it to the Apple Valley of today, at 27,000 square feet, was quite a jump. That happened in 1974 or 1975. So, then, with my dad being the manager of Apple Valley for 10 or 12 years I used to walk from Ruth Murdoch and go there and bag groceries or whatever, starting from when I was maybe 8 years old. So retail is kind of in the blood.
When I was 14 I had a bike shop in town, for four or five years before I went to college, a little retail/service industry kind of thing. It was fun. We didn’t sell new bikes. It was just drop off your bike and we’d work on it. Then I just started doing a lot of odd jobs to try to pay my way through college. I worked for a plumber, worked as an electrician’s helper, did some roofing, just a little of anything.
A bunch of little things that people go to hardware stores for?
Yes. Never really an expert in any of it, but kind had the feel of it. I worked for a couple of apartment complex owners fixing all kinds of stuff. They’d get work orders and after school or between classes I’d run over there and help them.
My wife, Bonnie, and I got married in 1988 and I stayed out of school a year to work full time while she finished up. I like work better than school anyway [laughs]. But then it seemed like the hardware store next to Apple Valley started having less and less stuff. They would run out of common nails and screws and plumbing parts. You couldn’t buy a plunger there--they were out. We started calling it the “out” store because they were always out of what we needed. The guy I was working with said “what we need in town is just a basic hardware store.” Actually, that store did a pretty good job on stocking lawn furniture, riding lawnmowers, appliances, but it was really hit and miss on hardware.
Long story short, there was a little hardware store for sale downtown, and in 1990 we bought it. It needed a lot of improvement and it was very small, but we just said “no statuary, no lawn furniture, no power mowers--just basic hardware.” And we’re still on that same premise for the most part. It’s coming up on 27, 28 years now. People come in and say “I’ve got a problem with my dishwasher,” or “my garbage disposal,” and I say, “well, I’ve done a couple of those before,” because at the apartments they had like fifty of them, and I’d say “so what’s the problem?” and you can kind of walk through it with the customer.
You expanded a couple of years ago. How is a small town like this able to support such a big hardware store?
That’s always a concern. A lot of prayer went into that because I’ve seen what can happen. We aren’t going to double our demographics in the next 20 to 30 years. So it was a concern not to put a lot of money into any kind of addition. Fifty years ago, a 1500 square foot store like we had originally, stocked just about every hardware item made. But they keep making so much stuff--maybe a thousand items a day are being pumped into the marketplace, odds and ends all across the board. And once in awhile those items will stick. Then you have to find a space on the shelf for it. And it just keeps growing and growing and growing. Back in 2000 they were saying if your hardware store wasn’t 10,000 square feet you couldn’t survive. We’re at 15,000 square feet now, and we don’t even touch all the merchandise carried by Lowe’s and Home Depot. Their business model is based on Walmart’s. They’re a manufacturer’s showroom. As people make stuff they put it in this showroom called Home Depot or Lowe’s. Lowe’s doesn’t even pay for the products until they are sold. Then they send the money to the manufacturer. They have 250,000 square feet.
We’re strictly a convenience store. Gas stations sell a lot of milk. Gas stations compete with Apple Valley and Harding’s on milk sales, just because of convenience. And we compete against Lowe’s and Home Depot on a similar basis. You know you’re going to pay a little more for milk when you’re over at the gas station--but you’re already there. People don’t mind paying a little bit more from a small place--they’re expecting it. You’re not going to drive to Benton Harbor and back to save a dollar. It’s not worth it. People’s time is more valuable. So we provide convenience. Someone might buy 50 bags of concrete for a job and they’re two bags short. It might be $1.50 more a bag here than at Lowe’s, but for three bucks they want to get the job done now. The concrete is hardening and they don’t want to drive to Benton Harbor to save three dollars. And this is a bedroom community. Logistically, we’re in the center of the county, and a lot of contractors live in the area. They might have a job in St. Joe or Niles, but they’re here in the morning, so they’ll stop in at 7 a.m., pick up the items they need, small things, and then head out to the job. So convenience is a big thing for us. Convenient hours, convenient parking, easy to get in and out, in house charge accounts for some of these people.
Plus, they know the store employees.
It’s relationships. We have the religiously based concept of treating others as we would like to be treated. If it’s 8:05 (p.m.) and someone comes to the door, everyone here knows that we’re opening the door. If they find us in here, we have to open the door. And the customer will love you for months. You imagine what it’s like when you’re on the other side of the door and you need one bolt to finish a job and you want to get it done. Then you say “I love this little store.”
What’s an example of new hardware products that have caught on in the last five or ten years?
There’s tons of them. In the plumbing department, they came out a few years ago with “SharkBite fittings.” So with copper or plastic tubing, instead of with a copper fitting having to solder joints together, you simply push them together. They’re 8-10-12 bucks apiece, but there’s no education needed, you can’t mess them up, you push together and you’re done. You can run water through them right away, whereas with a copper fitting that’s soldered you can’t. Those are extremely popular. We have to have eight feet of shelf space just for SharkBite fittings, and that wasn’t there five years ago. There must be 40 kinds of furnace filters, from the one dollar filter up to the thirty dollar filter that protects against allergies. We carry ten of them--and this isn’t sizes, just different levels of quality. Those things take up a ton of room. They make more kinds of hammers than could fit in this entire store. Titanium, the shape of the handle, the pink ones, the camouflage, just on and on. And that’s true about every item. There’s just too many choices. Henry Ford said “black.” You got a black car and that was it. I go to Honduras on mission trips, and I swear the entire country has one broom you can buy. It’s the same everywhere. You send someone to the store to get a broom and you know what you’re going to get.
What do college students come in here for?
Our main business comes from homeowners, maybe 80 percent. Students in the dorm, there’s a limited number of things they buy. A couple of weeks ago I was at another school and I saw tons of students buying small refrigerators. I thought maybe I’m missing that market. I don’t have those. Maybe we should! Students might get a little electric heater--not sure about dorm regulations there--an extension cord, sticky pads that allow you to hang something on the wall without damaging the walls.
What’s your favorite thing about running a hardware store?
The people. There’s so many relationships you build. It’s a ministry. Some people have a ministry from the pulpit; we think it can also be in the electrical/plumbing aisle. There’s a crowd that comes in here, elderly, widows and widowers, and they might just need someone to talk to. We have contractors that won’t make it to church, but they come in here every morning. We just got a letter from a lady yesterday who dropped her Visa card. One of our employees picked it up, looked up her name and called her, and she thought that was just phenomenal. It’s the only thing you should do.