After 36 years, friendly Ace Hardware in Largo closes

A customer, reflected in the door, walks away after reading that Ace Hardware at Tri City Plaza in Largo has closed after 36 years.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

A customer, reflected in the door, walks away after reading that Ace Hardware at Tri City Plaza in Largo has closed after 36 years.

LARGO

You could buy a simple nut or bolt with just loose change in your pocket.

You came to rely on the convenience of the mini-post office in the center of the store.

You chuckled when you stopped to buy a can of house paint and saw the longtime sign, "Before mixing paint, we need a note from your wife.''

Bob and Mary Jane Hoag provided memories along with hardware at their Ace Hardware store at Tri City Plaza. But on June 29, the couple closed the door for the last time.

"At one time, the store was extremely busy, but the time for a mom-and-pop store at this location is gone,'' said Bob, 66.

The couple will now become retirees. They hope to travel with their tuxedo standard poodle and spend more time with their four grandchildren.

"It's a new era for us,'' said Mary Jane, 64.

Sure, they are sad when they think of saying goodbye to the business where their customers would gather around a coffeepot at the back of the store to chat.

"We'll miss our employees, too,'' said Bob. "Some of the part-time ones came into work because they thought of it really not as a job but more a hobby and to socialize. They had fun.''

The Ace Hardware at Tri City had been open for 36 years. The Hoags purchased the business in 1987 from its original owners, John and Jackie Palmer.

The Hoags were ready for a break.

"For the last four years, I've worked every day straight,'' said Bob, who was a hospital administrator in Michigan before going into the hardware business.

Although many customers might have noticed that merchandise was not being restocked in recent weeks, others like David Martin of Clearwater were surprised to find a locked door and the sign that said, "Thank you for being a part of our lives, and allowing us to be a part of yours.''

Martin had come to rely on the Hoags for both their know-how and their postage stamps.

"Boy, I'm disappointed,'' he said. "I was going to mail my power bill and see about an extension cord, but they're gone. I should have told them a long time ago how much I depended on them.''

Linda Alvarez, a manager at neighboring Party City of Largo, said she was also shocked to see the business closing.

"I've worked here for 10 years, and I can't believe they are no longer going to be here,'' she said. "And it was so convenient because they sold a lot of stuff that worked well with what we sell. Now people will have to drive out of their way to get the same thing at Home Depot or Lowe's,'' she said.

Did the business fall victim to the big box stores? The owners don't want to say a bad word about anybody. Instead, Bob, whose father owned a hardware store in Chicago from about 1955 to 1963, explained the situation this way:

"We are closing because of the changing markets and buying patterns,'' he said. "This is certainly influenced by the big box stores, but we have always felt that there was some good in Home Depot and Lowe's. They got people really interested in home improvement, and we saw some benefits from that.''

Hoag believes he began seeing a shift in business in mid 2007. "The recession hit us at that point. At first, we thought it was a normal business fluctuation, but it continued,'' he said.

Other factors slowed sales, he said. There was a shift in the advertising market in recent years, a trend toward Internet shopping, and construction on U.S. 19, which seemed to deter people from stopping at the store.

Bill Gessert, owner of Hammerhead Ace Hardware at the other end of Bay Drive from Tri City, hates to see the business close.

"I haven't talked to him, so I don't know his true feelings on it, but I assume he fell victim of the economic times, and I think probably back when the U.S. 19 overpass went in years ago, that hurt him way back then,'' Gessert said. "And for us at this store, I believe for our success it matters a great deal that we own the building. We are our own landlords.''

Although he did not want to discuss finances, Hoag acknowledged that rent at Tri City Plaza, situated on East Bay Drive at U.S. 19, had been a challenge.

"We were in a prime location, and so the rent is too high for a family-run store like ours now,'' he said. "Maybe a Dollar Store or a franchise restaurant might do good. There's an Applebee's that seems to be doing well nearby.''

On July 3, the couple's sons, Kevin and Greg Hoag, along with their families, held a surprise party for the couple.

"We got together and gave them a present, a weekend getaway out of town,'' said Kevin, a television producer based in Tampa. "I'm happy for their retirement. They've worked hard, but transitions are tough. I had my first real job there when I was 17, so for me, personally, seeing it go is emotional.''

It was after the winter months, when all the snowbird customers had gone home, that the Hoags began realizing the end might be near.

"We just didn't have a war chest big enough to make it past this point,'' Bob Hoag said.

Piper Castillo can be reached at pcastillo@sptimes.com.

After 36 years, friendly Ace Hardware in Largo closes 07/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2011 5:31am]

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