Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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

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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 And as I started poking around, roaming between the narrow aisles, noticing things like bulk nails in bins, an outdated rotary dial telephone, the antique hand crank cash register, a wall calendar dating back to 1969, the creaking wood floor, notes from customers, baseball cards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

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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