Nick Sprowls has experienced all the ups and downs of owning a small-town business. In what he described as an “emotional roller coaster,” he gained thousands of loyal customers over the decades and then lost many of them to larger hardware chains.
While Sprowls Country Hardware put up a tough fight against its corporate competitors, the 122-year-old business was ultimately forced to close its doors for good on April 30.
“The small-town, little, independent, mom-and-pop businesses are a thing of the past,” Sprowls said while sitting in a rocking chair in the Claysville store’s office. “Anyone who’s in business is, by and large, hanging on by a thread.”
An inventory liquidation sale will be held today and Saturday, and merchandise will be sold at a 20 percent discount. The store will be open every Friday and Saturday until all merchandise is sold, or as long as it is viable, according to Sprowls.
The family-owned store was founded in 1891 by George B. Sprowls Sr., who spent time as a schoolteacher and later a state legislator. Business boomed, and Sprowls’ clientele included farmers, out-of-state visitors and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The store was eventually passed down to George Sprowls Jr., then to his son Dick, and most recently to Dick’s two sons, Chris and Nick.
With the Claysville store now closed, Sprowls will shift focus to the appliance store he runs with his brother on West Chestnut Street in Washington. He already has plans to move the wood-burning stoves in Claysville to the Washington location.
While Sprowls Country Hardware once sold everything from furniture to electronics to garden supplies, sales took a downturn about six years ago. Since then, Sprowls and his brother have been forced to cut everything, including prices, services and employees. At one time, Sprowls employed 10 people, but “in the last days, it was just me,” he said.
Once-full showroom shelves have long ago been emptied. A hand-cranked elevator that once lifted lawn mowers and other appliances is now shut down, because of operational costs. A scale that weighed nails – and two decades ago, newborn babies – is another relic of a past era.
Sprowls attributed the decline of small business to the convenience offered by chain hardware stores like Lowes and Home Depot.
“If being open at midnight on Sunday is being competitive, then no, we can’t compete,” Sprowls said.
Sprowls has no regrets, though. He said he always offered the best prices, specialized knowledge about the merchandise and a level of customer service that is lacking at larger stores.
Yet, Sprowls admitted that customer service does not necessarily yield profits, and in recent months, many of his sales have been small, low-cost items. He recently bargained with a customer over 30 cents.
“They nickel-and-dime you to death. They go to Lowes and spend 400 bucks on a project, and they come here to buy a three-dollar fitting off of you, and you have to spend a half-hour explaining to them how to hook it up because nobody at Lowes could.”
Despite the frustrations that came with trying to preserve a venerable business during a time when small operations such as his are nearing extinction, he had nothing but praise for his loyal customers.
“We’ve had a lot of great people who have come through these doors that I’m very, very grateful for,” he said. “I thank all the people who supported us over the last 122 years. It’s been a good ride.”