HOUSTON — Stroll into Buffalo Hardware Company and take a stroll back in time.
Narrow aisles lined with pegboards and metal drawers sell everything from nails and bolts to tools and light bulbs. Shovels hang on the walls above sacks of potting soil.
"We haven’t changed too much," said Jim Brown, the store’s owner. "We’re still an old-fashioned hardware store. We would sell nails by the pound. We have screws, one at a time."
But not much longer.
"Well, we opened in ’46," Brown says, wistfully. "And we’re closing in ’14."
All day long, stunned customers have banged on the locked door of the Buffalo Hardware Company, a family-owned business they’ve patronized for generations. Garish signs covering the windows confirm the sad news that a beloved small business plans to throw a long closeout sale and shut down after 68 years.
In an era of giant box retail chains with spotty customer service, Buffalo Hardware stood as a throwback to a time when a handyman store owner was as much a neighborhood institution as the paperboy tossing the evening news onto porches. But the store’s second generation owner is retiring and he can’t find anyone who wants to buy a little old hardware shop.
"The only family members that may have any interest are still in high school," Brown says. "And I’m ready to retire. We’re liquidating. We looked for buyers for about two years."
So people working at the store, some of whom have spent decades wandering its crowded aisles, have been marking down prices for a melancholy sale.
"Well, it’s kind of sad the closer it gets to closing time," said Shirley Wilder, who’s worked at the store for more than three decades.
"I got married working here, had two kids and moved four houses…" said Joanna Perez, who’s worked there for 12 years. "All here."
Buffalo Hardware has a rich heritage dating back to the America’s postwar prosperity after World War II. An Alabama boy named Richard Brown, who had grown up fixing stuff around his family’s farm, served in the Navy in San Antonio under a commanding officer named Bill Dickey, whose relatives owned much of the land surrounding the present day intersection of Westheimer and Kirby near River Oaks.
Richard Brown moved to Houston to work for Dickey, then ended up buying a tiny hardware store in the Dickey family’s newly developed Avalon Shopping Center. The shop that opened in 1946 was only fifteen feet wide when Richard Brown bought it in 1948.
Jim remembers working in the store during the summer when he was only nine years old.
"My first job was to count every nut, bolt and screw in the store, because it was inventory time," Brown recalls. "I, many years later, found that nobody had ever counted the fasteners before then or after, that it was actually cheaper to pay me 50 cents an hour to work here than it was to hire a babysitter for me."
Brown worked at the store "off and on" for decades, achieving a small degree of Houston celebrity as a handyman appearing on local radio and TV shows. He eventually returned to run the store in 2005.
Buffalo Hardware probably wouldn’t have survived this long, Brown says, if his dad hadn’t made a lucky decision to stock Pyrex and Tupperware. That started a second line of business selling upscale cookware, he says, which flourished into about 40 percent of the store’s inventory.
"It’s kitchen tools, just as you would have hammers and nails," Brown says. "We’ve always carried really good cookware."
Now it’s all going on sale at closeout prices. The store has been closed for days, preparing for a liquidation that begins Thursday morning. Brown figures it’ll take a couple of months to sell the entire inventory.
"I think what’s going to hit me is when all of this stuff is gone and we’re sweeping the floor before turning it back to the landlord," Brown says, choking up at the thought. "I think that’s going to be a day that … I’m not sure how it’s going to work."