After four decades, SCC Ace Hardware to close

In the setting sun of a beautiful winter’s day in Sun City Center, Sue Chapin walks out of her store, Ace Hardware in Sun City Center Plaza. Unless a buyer can be found, the store is scheduled to close at the end of the month. Mitch Traphagen photos.

In the setting sun of a beautiful winter’s day in Sun City Center, Sue Chapin walks out of her store, Ace Hardware in Sun City Center Plaza. Unless a buyer can be found, the store is scheduled to close at the end of the month. Mitch Traphagen photos.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

The tears come easily for Sue Chapin these days. She mentions her employees, or something a customer said … and then she tries to fight the tears away. Chapin isn’t one to feel sorry for herself. The tears are for others, her seven employees, for her customers and her community. They are for the approaching end to a small business into which she has poured her heart and soul.

At the end of January, Chapin’s store, the Sun City Center Ace Hardware, is scheduled to close forever. Unless, something, anything, can happen to change that.

“The people who work here, the customers, they are my family,” said Chapin.

Many of her customers feel the same way. Chapin tells of plates of brownies and thank-you cards. The big-box stores might make billions of dollars, but a plate of warm brownies or a card with kind words is worth a lot, too. In fact, they are priceless. Chapin carries them with her in her memories of the store she has been involved with for many years.

sign-acehardwareUnlike many other small businesses, Chapin has successfully weathered the competition from a much larger chain store, not far down the road. Her customers are devoted to her and the store; they come in for the knowledgeable and friendly staff. One woman said that she gets all of her keys made there and has never once had a bad one. Another said she loves the store because she can always find what she needs right away. A line of customers in the store all agreed that there is still room for mom-and-pop stores like this. They prefer them.

A small, locally owned store can do things that are difficult for the large operations. They can open up if a customer has an emergency after hours. They can deliver things to customers who simply can’t get to the store.

But times are changing and her franchisor is changing as well. Money is required to invest in a new paint line. And even more is required to invest in a new computer system, all of which amount to $65,000 just to meet the new requirements. And while the store, which has been open since the 1970s, has been profitable, it is not a large store by today’s standards. And for Chapin, it’s a hurdle that is just too big to overcome by herself.

“I’m really sad because I don’t want this to go away,” she said. “But I just don’t have the money right now. I also can’t do six days a week anymore with another full-time job. I just can’t.”

SCC Ace Hardware owner Sue Chapin, right, talks to a customer in her store. Many of her customers told her they appreciated the smaller store and the friendly, personal service.

SCC Ace Hardware owner Sue Chapin, right, talks to a customer in her store. Many of her customers told her they appreciated the smaller store and the friendly, personal service.

Her other job is that of an elementary school counselor, for many years at Ruskin Elementary and now at Collins Elementary. She has been in education for 45 years and uncounted — uncountable — thousands of students have been impacted by her sunny and caring outlook, and the passion she so clearly shows for children and their success. Most of those students are likely to remember her even decades later.

In 17 months, Chapin will retire from that position. She can’t think of that right now. Now she wonders how she can possibly lock the door to her store for the last time, in only a few weeks’ time.

Although the store is independently owned, the size of Ace Hardware allows her to be competitive, and sometimes cheaper, than big-box stores on items. She said the company provides a great deal of support, and would even help to train someone interested in buying.

“The best thing that could happen is that someone would come along and buy it,” she said. “The plaza owner wants to keep the hardware store.”

Certainly, the customers want the store to stay.

One woman left with some old and new plumbing hardware in her hand — in the store an employee helped her to find the new to replace the old. As she left, she held Chapin’s hand and told her how much she would miss the store. Another customer paid for her items, walked out the door, past the wooden benches and said, “I think I’m going to cry.”

dog-at-acehardwareWhatever Chapin and her employees have done, whatever it is they face in the near future, one thing is certain: This is no ordinary hardware store.

Out front, the sun was setting on a beautiful Florida winter’s day, highlighting the two wooden benches Chapin has long kept outside her store, one sitting beneath an American flag. The benches are a comfortable throwback to a different time. In some ways, perhaps, a better time; when things were slower and people had time to sit and chat.

But for now and the next few weeks, at least, that time still exists outside Ace Hardware. The benches are still there.

The hours involved in retail tend to be long and often stressful. It is more than a full-time job. But you wouldn’t know about the stress in seeing Chapin in her store, or sitting down on one of the benches. Her years are not evident on her face or in her spirit. In capri pants and sneakers, she would alternate between serious discussion, laughter, providing positive affirmation and pausing slightly to keep from choking up over a memory or a thought of what is to come. In that store, her chosen professions merge, the store owner who is also a counselor, a warm and caring woman.

Most companies today prefer large spaces and stores in which to offer every possible thing in one place. The 5,000-square-foot Sun City Center store doesn’t fit into that category. But for the customers who don’t want to cross enormous stores searching cavernous aisles, the store is perfect.

“They have done a lot with a little,” one man said as he left with his purchases. “They have a lot in here.”

But that could soon change if the store closes. Chapin is continuing to stock needed everyday items for her customers, but, eventually, the shelves will start to go bare as the closing day nears.

“If there is anyone out there that would be interested in this store, at least come in and talk with me,” Chapin said.

Don’t be surprised if the conversation takes place beneath the flag on a wooden bench out front, in the light of the setting sun, with customers stopping by to chat. At that store, on those benches, it’s still a different time. A better time.

The Sun City Center Ace Hardware is located in the Sun City Center Plaza. For information, call 813-634-5363.

 

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