Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Long-time North Mankato hardware store closing November 2, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:01 AM
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A view of the North Mankato business district where Mutch Northside Hardware is located.

TWICE IN THE PAST MONTH, I have visited businesses which have since announced plans to close. First I wrote about the Historic Highland Store and Cafe (click here to read that story), slated to close shortly before Thanksgiving.

The owners of Mutch Hardware are retiring this month.

Now, even before I could post about it, I’ve learned that old-fashioned Mutch Northside Hardware in North Mankato will shut its doors this month. During neither visit was even the slightest hint made to me that these places would soon close.

I really do not know what to say. I do not bring bad luck. I can only conclude that my visits were meant to be, that through my photography I am helping preserve pieces of Minnesota business history. And in the instance of the hardware store, I am also preserving the memories and legacy of the Mutch family.

A view of the old-fashioned hardware store from the upstairs office.

WHEN I MET Dave and Sandy Mutch a month ago, it was a quiet Monday afternoon in their North Mankato hardware store just across the Minnesota River bridge from Mankato.

Dave Mutch behind the original store counter with the original cash register and the original scale (behind him).

Dave was putzing in the back of the store while Sandy worked up front. And as I started poking around, roaming between the narrow aisles, noticing things like bulk nails in bins, an outdated rotary dial telephone, the antique hand crank cash register, a wall calendar dating back to 1969, the creaking wood floor, notes from customers, baseball cards and a turtle shell, Dave eased away from his work.

The store specializes in window repair.

I met a man content with life, happy to help customers—to fix their windows, duplicate keys, mix paint. He seemed in no hurry, his conversation flowing at a slow and easy pace.

Bulk bins of yesteryear, still in use.

I wondered aloud to Dave how his mom-and-pop business could compete against big box retailers. “We’re willing to do what other people won’t do,” he said then. He also noted that his store stocks merchandise that others don’t, although he did not offer specifics.

In this basement workshop space, Dave has spent many an hour through the decades repairing windows.

That focus on friendly customer service was clear to me as Dave led me into the basement of his building constructed and opened in 1926 as a hardware store. He works on windows in the depths of that basement, which also holds excess store merchandise. Eighty-six years as a neighborhood hardware store, and in the Mutch family since 1969. Remarkable.

This dated turtle shells marks the year Harold and Bernice incorporated Mutch Northside Hardware.

Dave’s parents, Harold and Bernice, incorporated Mutch Northside Hardware in 1969, opening in January 1970. Dave worked part-time at his parents’ hardware store while studying business at Mankato State University. He purchased half of the business in 1972. By 1979, he and Sandy, who holds a degree in social work, were full-time owners.

Soon Dave will close and lock the front door for the last time.

Soon they will be retirees. They’ll hold a closing sale and auction and then put the building up for sale.

With this long-time hardware store closing, I have to wonder who will repair the torn screens, who will replace the broken window glass, who will meet the hardware needs of the Mankato area residents dependent on Mutch Hardware for supplies and advice? Who will replace the Mutches’ friendly service? Where will customers find the one-of-a-kind merchandise not stocked at big box retailers?

Who? Where?

There’s a lot to be said for places like Mutch Northside Hardware. A lot.

An aging sign posted in the store along with notes from mothers giving their children permission to purchase paint, etc.

Cans of paint rim the top shelf next to the original tin ceiling in the 1926 building.

Before the Mutch family bought the business, it was Austin North Side Hardware, as noted in this 1969 calendar still hanging in the store.

A customer steps up to the original check out counter, where the wood floor is especially worn.

One of several narrow aisles crammed on both sides with merchandise.

Baseballs cards and a painting of the North Mankato business district add to the cluttered and nostalgic charm of Mutch Hardware.

A seasonal front window display beckons gardeners. Hand-lettered signs in the window advertise window and screen repair and canning supplies. The Mutches did not advertise, relying instead on word-of-mouth to promote their business, Dave said.

The upstairs office with the low tin ceiling and the original rolltop desk.

The back door.

Mutch Hardware’s last calendar.

Soon Mutch Hardware will ring up its final sales on this cash register dating to the early 1900s and close the doors on 86 years of continuous hardware store history in North Mankato.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


24 Responses to “Long-time North Mankato hardware store closing”

  1. treadlemusic Says:

    Just look at that stamped metal ceiling….”to die for”!!!! There will truly be a huge “hole” in the Mankato community….the sad part is that so few will recognize that!!! Can use some of those multi ‘cubby’ cabinets in my sewing area…hehe! So glad to hear retirement will be their destination but sad that such a business can not support another owner. Our local True Value is a family (little younger than us) who have successfully raised their family supported by the income from their endeavor, though it’s not been easy! We love having this/them in the community and seeing their children behind the counter many times!!! Another bittersweet post!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, you know, you could check in at Mutch and see if you might be able to purchase some of those cubbies.

      Running a business takes a lot of time, dedication and passion. Dave and Sandy definitely invested all three. But I could tell they loved what they did.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        That type of personal investment is so rare these days. I’m not saying it’s not there but the “personal” has given way to large-ness/volume. DS and wife own/run the local gas/convenience store and I’m happy to say have given it a one-of-a-kind makeover that has people stopping in just to look at the deco (DS went to the County Historical Society and had photos copied and made in to a vinyl ‘wrap’/mural that runs along the walls…awesome/interesting!).

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        One more reason to return to Houston. Great idea to incorporate history into a business.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        The comments have been overwhelming!! People really do care, it just takes that one person to initiate something and set a ‘tone’.

  2. Jackie Says:

    A great post Audrey, It just sucked me in! I feel sort of sad for a community that I dont even know. Such a charming store…loved all the photos, each one telling it’s own story.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thanks, Jackie. My husband joked last night that no one will want me to come into their business as, after I leave, it closes. Well, that’s happened twice in the past month now. Pure coincidence, I told him, noting that the decisions to close were made (but not revealed) long before my arrival.

      Mutch Northside Hardware reminded me of the hardware store my dad frequented back in my hometown. It was also the place where I bought caps for my cap gun.

  3. Love hardware stores like this because you CAN FIND what you are looking for and get so lost, dazed and confused in the big box stores! Happy Friday:)

  4. Michele Says:

    This is so sad to hear! My Great Aunt and her husband ran a hardware store for many many years in Mankato. I am not sure when they got out of the business themselves, I think it was sometime in the early 80s when they were a little older and I don’t think their children wanted to run the place. I remember my Great Aunt Mildred sending goodie boxes to my grandma from the store, sometimes pads of paper, sometimes nuts, bolts and washers or sometimes something really pretty, like a hobnail pitcher. My mother loved going to visit the store because of all the treasures she could find, she loved the smell and the sounds, she never forgot the sound of her shoes on the hard wood floor, she said it made her feel like a grown up to hear her heels click. Menards, Lowe’s or Home Depot will never have those kinds of memories.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Michele, thank you so kindly for sharing these detailed memories of your great aunt’s Mankato hardware store. Your writing is so descriptive that I can picture this in my mind. Of course, I grew up in a small town with two hardware stores (none now), so it is easy for me to visualize. One was a lot like Mutches. Such memories. And you’re right. The big box stores will never hold such memories.

  5. Beth Ann Says:

    Wow—I do not think that you are the “angel of closing businesses”! I think it was wonderful how you had access to take your wonderful pictures and document their amazing store. I loved the pictures of the worn floor and the cash register keys. History that you helped preserve with your blog post.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      My camera and notebook do tend to get me into places the general public may not have access to. I am always so grateful to tromp down basement stairs, or wherever.

  6. Allan Landman Says:

    Great story Audrey. We have lost 2 of the old fashioned hardware stores in our area too. There is one still hanging on near where we live. I would buy everything I need there but, they still have store hours like 60 years ago. They open at 8 in the morning, close at 5. Saturdays open from 8 to 1. Closed Sundays! I was in the store one day when the owner was complaining about business, and how Walmart has ruined him! I could not hold back my opinion!! I told him if he would be open from 10 in the morning until 9 in the evenings, and be open all day Saturday and Sunday, he would make it. I told him times have changed. Woman mostly work outside of their homes today like men, and many of the woman and men work in the Twin City Metro area and do not get home until 5 or 6 in the evening. By the time Dinner is over something in the house needs a part. Where do they go?, Walmart, as they are open, and you are not. I would much rather go to a local hrdwr store than to any big box store. If I need a screw or nail, I want onesy or twosy, not a box of 100 like the big box stores sell. Small Business people must change the hours of their shops today, as working out side of homes and farms have changed. 60 years ago or less, there were a lot of work at home Mom’s, and so many farmers. They could come in during the day to get a part or paint etc. Now working people only have time at night or weekends to catch up on home repairs, and the like. I asked the store owner what he does after he closes the store at 5 each night. He said he goes home. I asked him why not stay open and watch TV in the backroom between customers? I also told him he may not get to watch too much TV, as he would be busier than during the day! He hasn’t as yet changed his hours, but complains constantly to his few “day customers” he now has has. When he has to close his 3rd generation owned hardware store, he will have plenty of time to be at home. I know running a small retail shop on main street is hard now days, but hours are everything today. Stay open, and they will come. Price is not the only reason people flock to the Big Box stores, it’s because they are open nights and weekends. When we need a repair at our house, price is not as important as where can I get this drain piece so our house doesn’t flood any worse! House parts always fail at nights and weekends, so my advise to small town USA store owners, CHANGE YOUR HOURS. STAY OPEN LONGER IN THE EVENINGS, AND STAY OPEN SATURDAYS AND SUNDAYS!!!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You absolutely make some valid points with the hours, Allan.

      Case in point. We were in Fargo this weekend and wanted to take our college son shopping at Target for some clothes. So…, we checked out of the hotel around 10:30 a.m., drove three miles to Target, only to find it closed. We had checked online earlier and found that Penney’s would not open until noon. Let’s try Walmart, we thought. Closed too, until noon, just like the other two big retailers. Well, we wanted to shop, eat and hit the road because we had a five-hour drive ahead of us. We ended up driving back west to a Target in Moorhead.

      North Dakota still has a “blue law” on the books. Retailers cannot be open between midnight Saturday and noon on Sunday. Knowing that would have saved us a lot of time and miles and we would have planned our shopping trip for another time.

      Minnesota got our money, not North Dakota.

      My point…this is not just a problem in small town Minnesota.

      I agree that hours need to be convenient to the most shoppers. But, on the other hand, I understand how small business owners struggle with this issue.

  7. I love old-time hardware stores. We used to live in a little town where Roach’s Hardware had a sign saying “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” It was true, too!

  8. Emily B Says:

    Such an interesting set of shots and story, Audrey. The photos of the shoes and floor and the last one of the register stand out to me in particular. My uncle used to run a dry-cleaning business in Pipestone that he had to close almost ten years ago now. I cherish my memories of being allowed behind the counter in that store. So much history.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you, Emily. Seems many of us have fond memories of small town businesses. Glad your have your personal ones to treasure.

  9. ljhlaura Says:

    What a wonderful bit of nostalgia! It really evoked the atmosphere of these old-fashioned stores for me. While I agree times are changing, it’s sad to see the end of a store like this — and the pace of life that goes with it. Was really struck by that cash register!

  10. ryanware Says:

    Excellent story. I miss hardware stores like this. When I lived in South Minneapolis, there was Falls Hardware on Minnehaha. When we were moving, we had to install do dads on the outside faucets to get them up to code for selling. So I ask the owner where xyz was. Two seconds later he’s helping me get those, and telling me, you’ll also need these, those and them. I bought them on trust, when I got home and looked at the inspection report, he was right.

    I could have went to Home Depot, packed a lunch and some water to stay me on the journey provided by the mostly clueless help as they directed me hither and yon in the store not measured in square footage, but rather acres until I found most of what I needed. I say most because the help wouldn’t have known about the other things I actually needed as well. (Note, not all Home Depot folks are clueless. You’ll find the occasional person that used to own or had worked at the neighborhood hardware store, or folks that were in construction or in some way made a living with things Home Depot sells.)

    Allen makes some good points on hours. Some of these businesses with the hours they keep are useful for swing shifters, or the unemployed and that is about it. That is just one of the Postal Service’s problems.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I agree. It is the excellent customer service which defines these mom-and-pop businesses, like the ones you and I grew up with in sw Minnesota. Glad you enjoyed the story.

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