The Old Hardware Store

by | Nov 1, 2010 | Community Commerce

Crowded to the rafters with merchandise and local folk who sat around talking politics, the old fashioned hardware store is just a memory in most urban areas where big box stores have forced out their smaller competitors. 
Fortunately, Clarksville still has Cecil Hardware. While big chain stores like 84 lumber and Ace/True Value stores have come and gone in Clarksville, Cecil’s mom-an- pop operation has been serving customers for 50 years with hard to find parts and good advice.“If you can take 5 minutes out of your day and help a customer fix a part and save them money, they’ll be a customer for life,” said Kent Cecil, a second generation hardware man.
Kent started learning the hardware business as a three year old when his parents, Jack and Katie Cecil, bought an existing hardware business on Main Street back in 1960 after Jack graduated from Arkansas Tech University. Since then, the family has relocated the business one block away to 515 Sevier Street and now has three generations working at the store. Although Jack Cecil died in 2006, Katie still works at the store along with Kent, his wife Terri, their daughter Amber and son Chase and his wife Derenda.

While Kent doesn’t remember the early days in the family business as he didn’t start full-time until he graduated from the University of the Ozarks in 1980, his sharp- as-a tack mother has vivid memories. A great-grandmother herself, Katie is still actively involved in the family business and can usually be found helping customers and giving good advice.

“A lot of water had gone under that bridge in 50 years! I remember when all the stores in Clarksville used to close every Wednesday afternoon,” said Katie with a smile.
“In earlier days, we used an old punch- key cash register. I think it’s still around here somewhere,” said Katie, looking over the store packed literally to the ceiling with merchandise and treasures. Every square inch seems to be filled with some sort of product or tool. The back wall of the store is lined with antique tools, many donated by loyal customers.

“We used to buy bulk seeds and sold about everything for the house from the ground up except wood, which we never carried. We also sold a lot of black iron gas pipe and galvanized pipe for water. Today most everything is PVC plastic pipe. In the building industry, screws have taken over nails and air- tools over hammers,” she explained.
Katie also remembers how her husband’s buddies used to gather at the back of the store, sitting around on nail bins or sturdy old wooden chairs. When all the seats were taken, the men would often sit right on the counter.
“Oh, they could talk for hours, shooting the bull and talking politics,” Katie laughed. The men also played a game using those little Coke glass bottles you used to get. Each bottle was marked with the city it was made in, and the man who had a bottle stamped with the farthest city from Clarksville won the game.

While friends and customers still come in for the latest news and gossip, Adirondack chairs have replaced nail bins as seats and three computerized cash registers sit on the counter. Business practices have also changed as credit cards and credit lines have replaced the simple handshake as a way of doing business, said Kent.

Customer demographics are different, too. In earlier days, “not as many women came in to shop at the hardware store and those who did might be running an errand for someone else,” said Katie.

Today, more women are doing their own repairs and home improvements. Although it has been a bit of a challenge adjusting to the way women think, women seem to do a better job, said Kent.
“You only have to tell them once and they don’t come in with preconceived ideas about how something should be done.”
Giving sound advice is another reason Cecil’s Hardware has stayed in business when others have failed.
“Sometimes a customer comes in and tells you what he or she wants, but I say ‘you don’t need that’ and show them another way to do the job and save money at the same time. And, if we don’t have the part they need, we can get it. Customers appreciate that,” said Kent.

As more Hispanics have moved to Clarksville to work in the trades, some Cecil employees have learned a bit of Spanish to help communicate with these customers.
“We have customer’s today who were children when they first came in to translate for their grandfathers. One Hispanic man told me he appreciated that I took the time to try to understand and help solve his hardware problems. That means a lot,” said Kent.
As a way to thank its many customers over the past 50 years, Cecil’s Hardware had a 50th Anniversary celebration on Oct 8, complete with a DJ who played ‘Taking Care of Business’ among other favorites while 400 party goers ate free burgers and cake.

Twelve Cecil employees and family members wore matching t-shirts with a big “50” on the back, including Katie’s five- year-old great-grandson, Lance, who was seen playing with some flexible plastic pipe carefully duct-taped into a giant Hoola Hoop. Meanwhile, business was brisk as ever inside the store.
The Mayor of Clarksville, Billy Helms, was there along with Cecils’ primary hardware supplier, Earl Nolen of Orgill Hardware Distributors, to present Katie with the coveted Estwing Co. ‘Golden Hammer,’ an industry-standard award given only to individuals with 50 years in the hardware business.
“The Cecils are salt of the earth people. How many people like Katie have worked for 50 years in one business? You have to qualify to get this award; you have to serve your time. Katie and before that, Jack and Katie, did that,” said Nolen, who has worked with the Cecil family for more than 30 years as the store’s primary hardware distributor for over 70,000 parts.
“Technology has changed the way we all do business,” said Nolen. “Many small independent businesses are getting squeezed out by big corporate business. These little stores need to outsmart them by offering something the big box stores don’t; good old fashioned customer service. Cecil’s is doing that by their exceptional customer service,” said Nolen.

Mayor Helms said he had been coming to Cecil’s Hardware for 30 years.
“Anything you wanted or anytime you had a hardware problem, you just had to describe what the problem was and it was like they could read your mind. They are still doing that today. If they don’t have it, you probably don’t need it,” said Helms.



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