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Recession claims Safety Harbor Hardware

SAFETY HARBOR

Bob Steele remembers the boom days when tradespeople would stand in line outside his hardware store, waiting for the doors to open at 7:30 a.m.

That was just a few years ago, when speculators flipped houses like hotcakes and housing developments sprang up like tomatoes on Miracle-Gro. People invested a lot of money in home improvement projects back then.

But the economy went bust and now Safety Harbor Hardware, a fixture at 670 Main St. for more than 10 years, is closing its doors for good.

That likely will happen in a couple of weeks when the remaining inventory — now at 50 percent off — has been liquidated.

"We've always had a good solid base of customers," said Steele, "but after a while, that just wasn't enough. The guy who used to spend $20 now spends $4, and at the same time, the price of everything is going up."

Julie Brannon, owner of Bailey's Naturals, an herb store and apothecary on Second Street, came in on a recent morning searching for fish emulsion fertilizer for her garden. But it was already gone.

"It's a bummer that you're closing," she said to Steele. She has seen too many small businesses fall prey to the recession, she said.

"We just want success for each other. We're the ones who provide that personal customer service. We're the backbone of the economy."

Steele, 59, said he and his wife Grace, 53, had planned to run the hardware store until they retired. Now, he'll be looking for work, just like so many others.

"I'll be a greeter at Walmart if I have to," he said.

The couple put the store up for sale about three years ago, but there were no takers. Gloomy sales figures from 2010 prompted them to shut down operations.

Customers said the little hardware store was a real asset to the town, a place where one could get neighborly advice on how to fix a toilet or get rid of pests on a rose bush. Here, you could select nails — as many or as few as you liked — from big bins.

"Bob had all the oddball stuff you couldn't find in a big box store," said Doug Harper, a lawn and maintenance man for one of the churches in town. "His nut and bolt collection was out of this world. Rarely, he might not have what you wanted, but if that was the case, he'd order it and have it for you in a day or two."

Linda Houser, who works down the street at McMullen Flower Shoppe, was looking around for plant products.

"I'll miss this place; it's very convenient," she said. She grew up in Safety Harbor, a mecca for mom-and-pop businesses.

"It's nice to shop local. You can walk to most stores. If you drive, you usually don't have to worry about finding a parking place," she said.

As Steele reflected on the last decade, he remembered Christmases past when they would set out a buffet with food, beer and soda for all customers who came through the door.

And during the Halloween season, the couple bought huge bags of candy to pass out to the trick-or-treaters who flood Main Street each year.

Steele pulled out a photo of himself with his trademark spook: a giant bolt oozing fake blood, cut to look as though it was skewered into his forehead. Camera-carrying parents would often take pictures.

"I must be in a thousand family albums," he said, smiling.

Recession claims Safety Harbor Hardware 03/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 7:01pm]
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