Many of you have probably heard that Stoneway Hardware, our 34-year-old, beloved neighborhood store, will be closing soon. This Facebook post details owner Rory Rutledge’s decision to retire and the beginning of the inventory sale this month (along with many beautiful tributes!). I had the fortune to spend a little time with manager Jerry Smith this week who shared some of the reasons this place is so special.
“It’s been 34 years of funkiness”
Jerry has been with the business 27 years out of the 34 years of existence. He remembers early on how the business was in the front part of the store and the back of the building was a separate business. They eventually grew large enough to warrant the extra space, even if the shelves were a little bare at first.
Jerry was instrumental in filling those early “empty” shelves, acting as merchandising manager for many years. The store has always focused on supporting other local businesses, “We were into organic gardening before anyone else even knew what it was.” He used to call Walt’s Organic Fertilizer in Seattle and order the labeled paper bags for the store. He pointed out gardening probiotics developed by a local mom who launched the business while in graduate school.
Sometimes the unique products Jerry brought in would not move, but other times they would take off. “I talked with a friend who was trying to recycle burlap coffee bean sacks. People thought I was crazy when I brought them in to sell. Now I buy them 600 at a time.” (and a customer grabbed a few behind him while he was saying this).
It’s a family
But it’s not the one-of-everything selection, it’s the friendly, helpful people working at the store that mean so much to everyone. The relationships that customers have made with the store employees give it that family vibe.
“We’ve always been known for our music. We would let the employees pick it out and everyone had fun listening. Years ago, customers would bring in hard drives of music and ask us to add it to our collection.” He remembered more than one occasion of “Sweet Caroline” choruses sung in the aisles by customers and employees. “I’d sometimes see someone standing there and ask if they needed help and they would say ‘no, I just want to hear the end of this song.'”
“This store has played a role in so many people’s lives. I’ve seen people work here to get a start and go into trades, or work a job while going to school. I have people that work here recreationally. They don’t need the money, they just love being part of the family here.”
Jerry’s own family is counted in this list. His daughter, who was born 6 months after he started, grew up in the store and knows her way around a tool bench. When she graduated from school and applied for her first internship in optical engineering, her hiring manager loved that she had all the experience being in the store.
“In a way, we’re the last man standing.” Back in the day, north Stone Way was full of houses and the rest of the road offered a full selection of stores and trades giving it the nickname “Remodel Row” – Stone Way Roofing, Rodda Paint, Daly’s, Central Fabricators, Stone Way Electric, Western Fasteners (where the Brooks store is now), Highlight Mirror and Glass, Morgan’s Plumbing.
But all those businesses have since shuttered or moved and most properties have been rebuilt. “We’ve actually been here a lot longer than any of us thought we would.” Not owning the building, they knew that when the property owner was ready to sell, they would need to make a decision. The property has been sold and will be redeveloped, but even if they had a chance to stay and could afford the build out of a new space, the leadership team is looking toward retirement.
Stoneway Hardware will be missed by the greater community for many reasons. “We were always the go-to place for the tv news cameras during a weather event. They didn’t want to deal with the paperwork at a big box store, so they came here. Even if we were out of box fans or whatever, they still wanted to take a picture of the empty shelves. Sometimes one station would be here in the morning and another station would see it and come in the afternoon.”
One time Jerry was able to get an extra-large order of ice melt delivered. It arrived just in time and many other stores were out when the storm hit. Even the City was calling Stoneway. A semi-load arrived at the store, and they sold out in 40 minutes.
The unique Stoneway Hardware logo has been seen on many a Little League uniform and they’ve long supported the Boys & Girls Club. Back when South Seattle College was still a “Community” College, Stoneway partnered with their trades program and agreed to carry all the specialized tools or supplies required by the classes. Students would receive a T-shirt, and several had an opportunity for a job later.
Stoneway’s owner is also involved in the ownership of the Stoneway Hardware in Ballard. It’s a newer store and a different feel than Wallingford, but a good place. Jerry will move over there after the closure as well several of the current employees. “We can’t bring everyone, but we’re trying to bring as many people as possible.”
But first? A little time off for Jerry, before beginning again. It will be an emotional departure.
As I was leaving, a woman carrying a few purchases shouted out to the staff “You are all good! Thank you so much. I will miss you. Best wishes for success wherever you go next.”