Small stores feel no threat from Home Depot; Family-owned shops say they can survive arrival of big-box outlets in county


The Clark Do-it Center has survived urban development in the '60s, Tropical Storm Agnes in the '70s, even a building moratorium that cost the Ellicott City hardware store $250,000 in the '80s.

So, it's no surprise that owner Andy Clark says his store will still be standing after this year's arrival of a big-box store.

"We built this store anticipating Home Depot being built," said the owner of the Clark Do-it Center, which moved from St. Johns Plaza to its current location on U.S. 40 in 1990.

With Howard County's first Home Depot set to open at Chatham Station this month - and a second to open shortly thereafter in Columbia - owners of the county's third-, fourth- and sixth-generation family-owned hardware stores are bracing for a drop in sales. They're anticipating that Home Depot's big-store resources will compete with their small-store service.

"They know their market really well, and they play the game really tough," said Steve Kendall, the third-generation owner of Kendall Hardware in Clarksville.

Home Depot says the local shops shouldn't worry.

The big-box stores are slated to open June 29 in Ellicott City and Aug. 24 in Columbia. Mitch Berman, manager of the Home Depot at Chatham Station, said the landmark stores typically draw attention - and customer traffic - into their surrounding areas.

"I believe Home Depot is aware of the reputation they have of coming in and destroying hometown businesses," said Berman, who will have 200 employees at his store. "We want to bring people to the area that they've never had before, not put people out of business."

Mac McIntire said Berman might just be right. He is one of the former owners of Sewell's Ace Hardware and Home Center at the Golden Triangle shopping center, but he closed the local landmark on March 3 because his rent was doubled. McIntire said a big box could have helped business by luring customers who might not typically travel that way to fill their tool boxes.

"The Depot would have probably drawn some of them up [U.S.] 29, and we think that would have been good for us," he said.

But he and the local hardware store owners say that while the new stores might draw business from outside the area, they will still hit the smaller stores in their cash registers, at least initially.

"It clobbers you pretty good for about a year," McIntire said.

Still, he is confident that the smaller businesses will be strong in the long run. Eventually, he said, "your customers realize that you don't want to stop at a place that's over an acre under roof and go get a molly bolt. It takes too long."

At the John S. Wilson Lumber Co. in West Friendship, the O'Donnell brothers say personal service will ensure their survival. The three brothers are fourth-generation owners of the 25-employee lumber and hardware store, founded in 1881.

"Mass merchants will always have some effect on your cash flow," said Hugh O'Donnell, but "the novelty wears off."

Jim O'Donnell added: "You come in here, you deal with the owner."

One hardware store customer, Bob McCauley, shops at both big- box and mom-and-pop stores.

"To a lot of guys, Home Depot is like a big toy store. ... You go in and they've got a lot of parts," said McCauley, a maintenance man at the Forest Motel on U.S. 40.

As he shopped at the Clark Do-it Center for hinges one morning, he added, "For specialized parts and parts like this, you can't beat this place."

The Clarks have been in business for six generations. When the store opened, they were in old Ellicott City. They have since moved several times, landing in 1990 at their current location on U.S. 40 - 2.3 miles down the road from the new Home Depot.

Before Columbia was built, much of their business came from feed sales. The development of Columbia's farmland changed that. In 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes flooded their store. And in the 1980s, a building moratorium stalled for a year the building permit for the current store and cost Clark $250,000, he said.

Clark opened his current store nine months before the Home Depot in Catonsville opened. He said his store was growing at an annual rate of 40 percent, but when the Home Depot opened in July 1991, the store's annual growth rate dropped to 5 percent.

"I came within a hair's breadth of going out of business," Clark said.

But this time will be different, he said.

Now, the 54-employee hardware store is better established. Though Clark anticipates losing some volume, he said his store offers services, such as glass cutting, that big-box stores usually don't. It carries high-end products, such as Benjamin Moore Paints, not typically found at a big-box store; it usually gets customers in and out faster than a big-box store, he said; and it takes personal care with its customers.

Said Clark: "I doubt if a big box is going to spend 15 minutes trying to find a washer for a customer."

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