Bruce Bennett needed a couple of items for a home remodeling project Tuesday, an air hose and a Shark Grip demolition hammer. So he did what countless St. Paul contractors, carpenters, electricians, hobbyists and homeowners have done for more than 80 years.
He stepped up to the counter at Seven Corners Hardware, amid thousands of router bits and 900 power tools. That’s when he heard the news: His favorite hardware store was going out of business.
With undercutting competition from big-box stores and real estate prices soaring a slapshot away from Xcel Energy Center, the store’s third-generation family owner told its 21 employees it was shutting down and selling out to a national private developer.
Store President Bill Walsh said a confidentiality clause bars him from divulging details until Feb. 1, but rumors swirl about a possible hotel going up on the spot where screwdrivers and plumbing gadgets have been sold since 1933.
“This saddens me in a big way,” Bennett said. “Very few things in life are dependable anymore and this place was one of them.”
A St. Paul fixture since the Great Depression, Seven Corners Hardware has counted among its customers everyone from rope-needing barge captains on the Mississippi River to wrench-seeking members of Madonna’s stage crew for a concert down the block. Local contractors and building trades pros made up three-quarters of their sales.
“I’m unbelievably depressed because this store fits St. Paul and it fits West Seventh,” said Gary Brueggemann, a longtime St. Paul teacher, historian and customer.
“It’s got a kind of a rustic flavor, it looks like a hardware store and smells like a hardware store,” he said. “There is so much tradition going with it. Unlike Menards, when you walked through the door, they just knew what kind of saw you needed.”
Walsh said the store will probably close by June 1 after a 16-week sale of its 200 different kinds of hammers, 170 types of files and 4,200 plumbing gizmos. Walsh, 49, has lived in Orange County, Calif., for a decade and said he’s turned down numerous offers for the property.
“But the timing was just right with this developer and so was the price,” he said.
He told his managers Saturday and brought in the rest of the staff one at a time on Monday to give them the word. He said they will all receive severance packages and full pay and benefits. Home Depot reportedly reached out to employees on Tuesday with potential job offers.
“I’ve spent half my life here and working for a family joint like this has been incredible,” said Pat Shimota, 51, a 25-year employee who has attended weddings and barbecues with contractors who became his friends.
“I’ve heard this 10,000 times since I started: ‘If Seven Corners doesn’t have it, you don’t need it,’ ’’ Shimota said.
Once, a customer called who had jacked up his house to fix his foundation and it was starting to list.
“I was flattered he would call the tool desk and ask for advice to save his house from tipping off its cribbing,” Shimota said. “All I could tell him was to get out of the way, but that was the kind of relationship we built over the years.”
William Walsh was an electrician who wired most of the Otis elevators in downtown St. Paul when he opened the store across the street from its current spot on the corner of Chestnut Street. The family moved the store across West 7th after World War II and expanded four times. An adjacent church building is believed to be part of the redevelopment.
Bill Walsh recalled how, during the Depression, his grandfather would trade hardware for stock certificates from local start-up companies such as 3M. He framed one IBM certificate valued at two pennies.
“I have no idea how much hardware my grandpa gave him for two cents of stock,” he said.
When the city moved the massive historic brick Armstrong-Quinlan House in 2001, a panicked crew foreman ran into the store. Two brake compressors were shot and he couldn’t get the big house down Chestnut hill.
“We sold him the fittings and the compressors on a handshake and a smile,” Walsh said. “They sent us a $3,000 check overnight.”
Minneapolis electrician Michael Zidel, 68, picked up a few parts Tuesday with a shrug.
“This was an institution and it’s a really sad day for hardware,” Zidel said. “But I guess everything comes to an end.”