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Competition drives Gateway Hardware's closing

(ran East, South, Beach editions)

The owner of the Fourth Street N fixture says he'd rather celebrate 25 years of service than mourn the loss of business to superstores.

The narrow aisles at Gateway True Value Hardware in St. Petersburg used to be packed with customers on Saturday mornings, the air rich with the smells of new wood and garden fertilizer. Homeowners and apartment dwellers in the northeast part of the city would stop by to pick up a part for a lawn mower, get a duplicate made of a house key, or take home a can of custom mixed wall paint.

As of 5 p.m. Aug. 31, the little store at 8440 Fourth St. N will be no more.

The shelves are all but empty, and most of the merchandise displays are long gone. After 25 years in business at the same location, owner Jeff Keller has hung out a sign reading "inventory liquidation, everything discounted, store closing."

Gateway, like some other mom-and-pop businesses, has lost ground to warehouse giants Home Depot and Lowe's _ "big box" stores as they are known in the home improvement industry.

"Our market share of the business has been going down for years although we have existed for a long time with competition,"' says Keller, 46, who hobbles around the almost empty store on crutches with a broken leg from a fall off a ladder.

Calling the past 25 years a "great run of business," Keller insists he doesn't want to be seen as a victim. When a longtime customer shed tears in the store recently over the imminent closing, Keller told her he was fortunate he was able to do business in one place that long. It's an accomplishment he believes "should be applauded, not mourned."

Customers come into Gateway Hardware and "swear up and down" they hate to go to the superstores, Keller says, but when he drives down 22nd Avenue N, he sees a Home Depot parking lot that is almost always full. The demise of small stores is an indicator that the big stores are doing what they are supposed to do. "Their obligation to their shareholders is to capture the home improvement market," he says.

Keller's father, Wendell, bought the building in 1974 when he moved with his wife, Edith, to St. Petersburg from Westchester County in New York. He forged a franchise relationship with True Value that brought a sharing of advertising, insurance and purchasing benefits. Jeff Keller, then 21, having earned his bachelor's degree in English Literature at Ohio University, also moved to St. Petersburg. He went to work in the family-run business and eventually became sole proprietor of the operation.

Keller says he got his training on the job and by attending dealer workshops and seminars. He parlayed his new skills into a radio job in 1979, one that will continue after Gateway Hardware closes. The live, call-in show, which offers advice from "Jeff the handyman," used to be on WFLA and WPLP in the Tampa Bay area. While the show is no longer on the air locally, Keller is syndicated nationally on 50 radio stations through the Business News Network.

Wendell Keller sees the closing of the store as a sign of the times. When the business opened 25 years ago, he says, there were a lot more people looking for the products and services offered in neighborhood stores. Older brother Gary, 50, worked at Gateway Hardware full time for about 10 years and now is office manager for John Bowman, a certified public accountant.

"You have the illusion that the bigger stores will give a better deal," Bowman says of the consumer public, "and that's hard to beat with all of their advertising. It's sad to see any business close. It was good for the neighborhood."

Pat Brooks lived in north St. Petersburg for 12 years and was a frequent shopper at Gateway Hardware. The morning show co-host and news anchor for WYUU, U-92 FM radio recalls it was "a good bet you would have all the Kellers waiting on you when you went there. It was either the father or one of the brothers." The store was "homey and crammed full of stuff," Brooks says. "They knew where everything was; they never said "oh, we don't have that.' "

Barney's Motorcycle Sales on Gandy Boulevard is a frequent customer at the hardware store. "They are going to be missed, I can tell you," says Ron Newton, customer relations representative for Barney's. "They had all the essential stuff we needed; it was personal service, and they did a good job of it."

Of Gateway Hardware's closing, Newton says, "The little man took the bite again."

Keller, who lives in a restored craftsman-style bungalow in the Euclid neighborhood of northeast St. Petersburg with wife, Char, a drug and alcohol counselor and son Sean, 7, a student at Lakeview Fundamental, won't say what he will do next. He doesn't rule out a job at the former competition _ Home Depot, Lowe's or another "big box" improvement warehouse.

Besides closing the store, Keller is trying to sell the Gateway Hardware building for $300,000.

"Look at Fourth Street, how it's been rehabilitated," says the man whose family did business there for a quarter of a century. "While there wasn't a way to maintain this as a hardware store anymore, it's a prime piece of real estate."

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