Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Appreciating mom-and-pop businesses like Mutch Hardware June 27, 2011

Buildings across the street reflect in the windows of Mutch Northside Hardware in North Mankato where these signs hang on a front plate-glass window.

“Grass Seed and Fertilizer.”

“We cut glass and plexiglass.”

I didn’t need grass seed or fertilizer or any glass cut. Yet, the signage drew me to the storefront plate-glass window of the hardware store along Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato. How often do you see business signs like this with letters printed in near-perfect penmanship between two penciled ruler lines on white tagboard?

After I admired the simplicity of this advertising in a world of mass-produced, flashy, signage, I noticed the old screen door. That did it. I was smitten with this place, this Mutch Northside Hardware that, from the exterior, reminded me of the small town hardware stores of my youth.

You know, the kind of store where you can buy everything and anything. The place packed with merchandise from floor to ceiling, aisles narrow as a sidewalk crack. Nails and bolts jumbled in scarred cubbies. Belts dangling from hooks on pegboard. Wooden floors that creak.

Mutch Hardware is crammed with merchandise, some of it displayed in the window fronts.

An old ACE Hardware sign decorates the front door where a handwritten sign is posted listing store hours.

I could almost hear the vintage screen door slam shut behind me as I stood outside the closed hardware store, hands cupped around my eyes, peering inside. It was late Saturday afternoon and I was hours too late to step inside Mutch Hardware, much to my disappointment.

But that didn’t stop a flood of memories from washing over me. Memories of going to town with my dad, stopping at Joe Engel’s Hardware store on Vesta’s main street to pick up a few bolts or maybe a belt or something else for the farm.

My siblings and I had another reason for hitching a ride to the southwestern Minnesota hardware store with our dad. Joe Engel’s supplied our ammo—coiled rolls of red-perforated paper pocked with gun powder for our toy cap guns. This was the 1960s, and even though not politically-correct today, an era of playing “Cowboys and Indians.” I remember those days with a depth of fondness that I doubt today’s tech-oriented kids will ever experience.

I would like to take each of them inside a business like Mutch Hardware, where I expect helpful, personal service, care and friendliness accompany each purchase. Places like this seem rare in our fast-paced world of big box stores run by corporations in far away cities. Few mom-and-pop stores can survive in today’s economy. That is reality.

I’m not a prima donna; I shop chain stores as much as anyone. Yet when I see a business such as Mutch Northside Hardware in North Mankato, I take notice. I appreciate the hardworking men and women who, as independent business owners, still offer us a shopping option.

Outside Mutch Northside Hardware, a place reminiscent of bygone days.

DOES AN OLD-FASHIONED mom-and-pop type business like Mutch Northside Hardware exist in your community, or do you know of one somewhere? I’d like to hear. Tell me about it by submitting a comment.

This image of a section of Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato shows the following businesses, from left: Like-Nu-Cleaners, Christy's Cafe, Mutch Northside Hardware, Skillings & Associates, Dino's Gourmet Pizzeria, Craft-n-Floral Center, the U.S. Post Office, Frandsen Bank & Trust and Bobby Joe's Pub.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

11 Responses to “Appreciating mom-and-pop businesses like Mutch Hardware”

  1. Bernie Says:

    Ohhhh a screen door on the store!! You don’t see that anymore. I used to love to go to the hardware store with my dad too. It was right down the street from our house.
    We own an old Mom and Pop store. The Rubber Stamp Shop has been in business since the 60’s. We are also online as well. That is one of the best Mom and Pop stores in my area. (Montana) 🙂

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Readers, do you, like Bernie, appreciate those old screen doors and have sweet memories of mom-and-pop stores? Or even own one like Bernie and her husband out in Montana? Let’s hear from you.

      Thanks for sharing your memories of going to a hardware store in your native Duluth, Minnesota, Bernie.

  2. Belle Plaine still has its family owned Steffen’s ACE Hardware (still called Steffen’s by anyone who remembers it from 60 or 70 years ago). It used to be named OUR OWN, HARDWARE HANK’S and now ACE and items within its walls have changed over the years. There use to be three hardware stores supported by this small town back then but the growth of the big stores in the “cities” which were now “conveniently” within driving distance with cheap gas in the cars drove those other stores out of business. Hardware stores sold everything but food, although they did sell everything to prepare and preserve your food. What interesting places they were to search through for just that certain size bolt and nut you needed and then they would sell you just one, not a whole boxful that you would never need another one out of ever again!! From bicycle chains to fishing lures to paint mixed while you wait to baseballs and gloves to glass cut for the window that just got broke while playing with that baseball and glove! Hardware stores even had a unique smell to them when you entered the door. In the summer time Steffen’s still leaves the front door propped open with summer items displayed on the sidewalk in front of the store. And the friendliest people in the world work within its walls! Jim Steffen grew up in that store and still works there every day. He works hard but still finds time for hobbies such as flying his small plane, antique cars and antique toys. Stop in and give him some business the very next time you happen to be in Belle Plaine and “no” I am not related!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Harriet, thanks for sharing this detailed info about the down-home hardware store in Belle Plaine. You nailed it (no pun intended) exactly with your description.

      Sounds like maybe I’ll need to write a magazine feature package on hardware store, or long-standing, mom-and-pop businesses.

  3. I would love to see and read a magazine article on hometown family hardware stores. That would be so neat to see and read. Lots of people have good memories about those stores.

  4. Katie Shones Says:

    Audrey,

    I go out of my way to patronize small town businesses. My parents used to own the Hammond Grocery Store. It was a small store but carried the essential basics for groceries. My father also sold plumbing supplies and Christmas trees (grown on the family dairy farm) out of the store. Mom’s friend, Bea operated a beauty saloon from the Store, too for many years. Gas pumps stood outside on the sidewalk and either you could pump your own gas or we would do it for you. The Hammond Grocery Store closed in March of 1996 after the death of my father, David Bleed. That was the end of an era. The Hammond Grocery Store had operated continuously from 1858 to 1996 out of the same building.

    I do the majority of my grocery shopping in Plainview at Lannings. I might pay a little more there than at a nationwide chain, but they offer what I like (such as potatoes by the 50 pound sack, 25 pound bags of flour, canning supplies, etc) and their customer service cannot be beat! How many grocery stores expect you to go through the drive through and load your groceries for you? I also make a point to stop at Renike’s Corner at least once a week to buy gas and/or disel. It is a little gas station just north of my home and I do not want to see it close down due to lack of business. Many times instead of shopping at a supercenter of some sort for cards,gifts, knick knacks, etc, I will go to the JT Variety Store in Plainview. It reminds me so much of the old Ben Franklin’s of my childhood. You can buy anything there from cards, to fly paper, to Watkin products.

    I once heard that for every dollar spent in a local business, 65 cents goes back into the local economy where as only 38 cents comes back to the local area from a nation wide store chain.

    I do support local businesses, especially the Mom and Pop type. I wish more people would because once a small business closes it’s doors in rural America, it usually is forever.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well said, Katie. You certainly understand the importance of small town, locally-grown businesses like Mutch Hardware. Thank you for sharing your insights and for telling us about your family’s mom-and-pop store.

      I agree that it’s the customer service which is the shining star of such businesses.

  5. Gordon Says:

    Great article! All of the mom and pop stores I knew as a child are gone or developed into bigger stores. I like to frequent places where the owner or owners are working some times. Ace Hardware in Lakeville, New Prague, and Apple Valley are stores that combine that old-time service with modern efficiency. Next time I’m in Mankato, I’ll look up Mutch Hardware, and I’ll take Harriet’s advice and visit Steffen’s Ace Hardware next time I’m in Belle Plaine

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Good to hear of another person who values independent, mom-and-pop type stores.

      Now that Ace Hardware stores have been mentioned several times in comments, I’m wondering if that’s part of the Ace philosophy, to offer great customer service. Ace Hardware in Faribault, which certainly is not a small town at more than 20,000, offers THE BEST customer service. The minute you walk in the door, an employee is asking if you need help. And not only then, employees monitor the aisles and help you find exactly what you need. If it’s not in stock, a product can be ordered for you. This place is always busy. It’s a great business model for success which focuses on customer service. As a bonus, there’s always free popcorn in the popcorn machine at the back of the store.

  6. Sheryl Thrasher Says:

    Hi –
    I love this article!! When I was 12 years old my Dad, Robert Thrasher, Sr., bought the local hardware store in Oriskany, NY. My brother and I bascially grew up in that store. My brother worked there after school and weekends and I would go and “help” him until he graduated and then went off to the Navy. Today July 20, 2012 he finally sold it after 30 years of being in business. The gentlemen who bought it has other plans for the building because there really isn’t a need for a small community hardware store anymore since all of the big box stores came along and put the “Mom & Pops” out of business. It’s bittersweet for my family and I because my Dad put his heart and soul into that business and to see it be wiped away like that is hard for us but on the other hand my Dad finally gets to retire! Thanks for the memories!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Sheryl, I can only imagine the bittersweet feelings your family is experiencing today as your family’s hardware store closes. As you know from reading my post, I have many fond memories of going to hardware stores in my southwestern Minnesota hometown. There’s one thing Mom and Pop stores offer that Big Box retailers will never match and that is customer service. Last night I waited in line for 15 minutes or more to check out my purchases at one of this nation’s largest chain discount stores. I was not a happy camper and when I suggested to two employees that they needed more checkers, I got lame excuses and no “I’m sorry.”

      That all aside, hold fast to your memories and best wishes to your dad. I expect his hardware store will be missed more than community memories realize.


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