Winslow Hardware is closing its doors

Mary Hall and Ken Schuricht will continue to run Winslow Paint.

Citing high costs, declining sales, unfavorable prospects and advancing years, owners Ken Schuricht and Mary Hall are closing Winslow Hardware and Mercantile, they said Friday.

“You just reach a point where you don’t know if the ends justify the means to keeping the store going just to keep it going,” Schuricht said.

Liquidation of merchandise will begin with an invitation-only sale on March 23; the public sale begins a day later, with a goal of having the business shut down by May.

Everything goes, including the fixtures.

The couple have owned and operated the iconic Winslow Way business since 1994, when they purchased it from the estate of long-time owner Habb Hedrick and brought new vigor to a then-careworn storefront.

The store was cleaned up and reorganized from top to bottom, and strong sales followed. The owners used local advertising to become community characters, with Hall’s ubiquitous promise that “the coffee’s always on.”

“People like to connect with shopkeepers,” said Hall, an island native. “It makes them feel part of the community, and we’ve really benefited from that.”

But the economic challenges of running a brick-and-mortar goods outlet in a high-rent downtown environment slowly overtook the business.

By 2001, paint sales constituted one-third of all business, overwhelming every other department in the store. The owners responded by opening Winslow Paint, a start-up business on Hildebrand Lane, with Hall as manager.

At the same time, they purchased three turnkey paint outlets from national dealer Benjamin Moore, giving them storefronts in Poulsbo, Port Townsend and Sequim as well.

Those businesses have thrived, particularly the Hildebrand Lane outlet. Sales there have exceeded expectations several times over, Schuricht said, at least in part because local contractors found a convenient, on-island dealer.

To make up the lost volume in the hardware store, Schuricht tried new product lines including furniture, and de-emphasized power tools, which had never done well.

But without paint as an anchor, the remaining departments could not move inventory fast enough to keep the business profitable.

“We were just never able to recover,” Schuricht said. “We have over 20,000 items in the store. To have 20,000 items turn over on a regular basis, it’s just not possible.”

Downtown parking problems haven’t helped; sales of large items like lawn mowers and barbecues have fallen off, as buyers apparently have gone to other outlets with easy vehicle access.

Perhaps the determining factor has been escalating commercial lease rates downtown. Schuricht and Hall own the 6,200-square-foot building sandwiched between Paper Products and Blackbird Bakery, but have subsidized the hardware operation by charging the business a fraction of the going lease rate downtown. Higher property taxes no longer make that an option.

They considered changing the store’s focus or other retooling, but now on the cusp of their 60s, decided to simply close the doors.

“If you had people who had lots of energy, they could reinvent the store and make it a success,” Hall said. “We’re in the best position because we own the building. But once you separate the ownership of the business and the building, (it doesn’t work).”

Her husband added, “Hardware is not a high-profit business to begin with.”

The liquidation will end a nearly 60-year run of durable goods sales in the heart of downtown.

The building was constructed in the late 1940s – freestanding, with vacant lots on either side – by Holger Christiansen, who offered appliances, housewares and other goods under the Western Auto shingle.

It became Winslow Hardware under the subsequent ownership of Habb Hedrick, and then Winslow Hardware and Mercantile under the present ownership.

Despite affiliations with several national tool distributors, the store maintained its independence to the last, offering what Hall described as “service, knowledge and consistency” to customers.

All of the store’s seven full-time employees were island residents, and the business also had a cadre of part-time workers and high school students who were familiar faces. Unusual for a small outfit, the store offered employees health insurance, paid vacations, 401(k) plans and year-end bonuses, which minimized turnover.

“They’ve stuck with us,” Hall said. “That’s going to be the hardest part – telling the employees.”

Schuricht quietly approached several potential buyers about taking over the store as a going concern. But no one could make the numbers pencil out if they had to pay market lease rates for the space.

For that reason, Hall said she believes she and her husband simply extended the life of the hardware store by 10 years.

They have contacted several potential tenants for the soon-to-be-vacated space, but have not reached agreement with anyone.

“I’m thinking that when everything’s cleaned out, we’ll have a big dance in there,” Hall said.

“We can have a wake,” Schuricht rejoined. “People will have to pay for entry, though.”

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