“Just the other morning (early April), a couple who visit here every year came into the store. They noticed machines out front with snow all around them. The customers asked what we were selling. We told them, ‘Those are snowblowers,’ but they were really lawnmowers.”
Stories and memories, recent and distant, collect as Paul and Debbie Painter page through a scrapbook which Debbie has been putting together recently. It should be ready for the anniversary of their twenty years in business which is coming up soon. Painter (Coast-to-Coast) Hardware opened across the street from their present location on August 6, 1987.
They built their new Ace Hardware store in 1996, breaking ground around the 4th of July. They had just hired old Rob Barnhart and had recently switched from an affiliation with Coast-to-Coast to Ace. DeVerle Van Campen was the manager at the time.
The album is most especially filled with photos of people who helped in building, decorating, and celebrating the new store. Dean Sorensen hasn’t changed. He seems to be wearing the same jacket then as now. Tammy Schenk greeted the very first customer with a big kiss. That customer happened to be her husband, Wes.
The Painters stress that putting up the new Ace Hardware was a “real community effort.” Ron Fischer was the contractor and Sorensen one of his carpenters. John Hall did the iron work. Carl Dishong and Bryan Tomlinson took care of the electricity. Wilting did the plumbing, Dick Stroh built the counters. Signs were a collaborative project by Tammy Schenk, John Hall and Danny Cattaneo. Friends and family helped with painting and high school students moved merchandise from the old to the new store.
The Grand Opening was celebrated on November 8 with balloons from the DeShaws and an appearance of the Madden Mobile. Ron Fischer filled in for John Madden wearing a football helmet and a smile.
Many years ago, Paul was Director of Security at Applied Research near Los Angeles International Airport. Debbie was working in accounting at Hughes Aircraft. They met at a softball game. Who won? “We both won.”
Paul had graduated from UM at Missoula with a degree in business administration way back when. He is a BIG Griz fan. “They’re Montana’s Team. THE Montana Team.” What else? Debbie took her degree in accounting from Cal State at Fullerton. The Painters have two children. Phil lives in Billings and does inspections and investigations for insurance companies. Jen is a teacher at the Duncan Colony School.
How did they get started in the hardware business? Paul says, “I was tired of the aerospace industry and always wanted to move back to the Northwest. We loaded up the kids and moved back to Harlowton. We rented a house here and started looking for a business to buy. Kalispell, Bozeman and Helena, etc.”
About that time, Erickson’s Coast-to-Coast Store came up for sale. It took the Painters three or four months to make the decision and the transaction. In the meantime, they also bought their present home up the hill towards the golf course.
Business grew - more lines, toys, housewares. Debbie says, “We’re always looking for new niches, things that people ask for.” The present store has about three times as much floor space as the previous.
What about the move from Coast-to-Coast to Ace? “Coast-to-Coast had been bought out by larger entities on two occasion and it looked like more of the same was coming. Ace was looking for brand new startup stores. The move was good timing. We had clearances and sold fixtures. We got rid of old inventory and bought new inventory across the board.”
Painter’s Ace Hardware is more than a hardware store. “We are a modern mercantile. Ace has a wide variety of goods.” In addition to Ace products, Debbie began working with VDI (Variety Distributors) four or five years ago to broaden and expand their merchandise lineup. (VDI is a major supplier for Ben Franklin.)
Change is and has been a big part of Painter’s business. “We’re forever changing. Getting rid of things that don’t move. We have a small sewing section, household goods, even pillows for hunters. We’re always looking to fill people’s needs.”
“We had a hunter come into the store years ago when we had a selection of hunting rifles. He wandered around and stared for a long time before he came over and asked to buy a rifle. The man was embarrassed because he left his gun at home when he came out on his hunting trip.”
Twenty years from now? “Maybe everything will be online. We hope not.”
From the scrapbook to the filing cabinet, Debbie thumbs through dozens of employee files from over the years, naming names and a few memories. “We’ve been blessed with really wonderful help. Ray has been with us almost from the beginning. He’s our freight truck man. We stole Rob Barnhart away from Billings. He’s been our mainstay. He keeps things lively.”
Painter’s Hardware also employs Linda Barnhart, Duane Kolman, and Kim Guesanburu. “We couldn’t do our business without Linda. She is really valuable. Linda helps with our ordering, now. (Linda alternates that job with Paul.) Duane is our filler and Sunday man. Kim has been with us about a year and strengthens our staff.”
Painter’s Ace Hardware has been a “Mom & Pop Store” since Day 1. “Paul and I were working six days a week from the beginning. The kids would come ‘home’ from school to the store when they were growing up.”
But, things are changing, again. Paul says, “Business is driven by urban markets, big competitors, even though there are still a thousand small ‘Mom & Pop’ Ace hardware stores. That puts a lot of pressure on us to conform to technology produced by Ace for the big stores in the big cities.” Fortunately, there may be an alternative. Ace is now developing a small store computer system.
Twenty years with no major traumas. “Knock on wood,” Paul reflects. “It blows my mind. Twenty years. If I had stayed in the Guard or aerospace industry, I would have had SOME retirement. But, we’ve had the blessing of a small town. Also, the trials and tribulations of a small community. I love retail and I love people. And, both our kids are very glad they grew up here in Harlowton.”
How about celebrating those twenty years as Painter’s Hardware? “We really, really, really should. We should do it in August. We also have our Class Reunion in August. We may do it, then. We’ll do something.”
Paul smiles about an older lady who frequented the store several times over a couple week period. “She kept coming in to buy bug spray and bug balm. She thought she had crickets. We suggested that she check the battery on her smoke alarm. Cricket problem was quickly solved.”
While the Painters continue to proudly and happily provide their Central Avenue modern mercantile and hardware, they are ready to turn over the business to a suitable younger family. Hopefully, the next owners will be as helpful and dedicated to the community.
Happy 20th Anniversary to Paul and Debbie at Painter’s Hardware.