Johnnie King looks over a supply sheet while daughter Rose Mary helps a group of customers at their hardware store on Chicago’s West Side.
Rose Mary’s husband, John, is in the store’s supply room in the back looking up an item for another customer. King’s other daughter, Catherine, also works in the store, greeting a customer who just walked in. It’s a family affair at King Hardware, 4415 W. Madison. Formerly affiliated with Ace Hardware, King was the chain’s first black franchisee in Chicago in the late 1960s. He left Ace to become an independent merchant in 2007, but still has an investment in the chain.
King, who’s lived in Oak Park for nearly 30 years confesses, “I always say I sleep in Oak Park but I live here.”
At 84, King says he’s ready to sell the business. He actually announced his retirement a couple of years ago, but has yet to find a buyer. King is still the first one at the store, bright and early, sweeping up outside just before opening the doors. He wants the shop to remain a hardware store.
Sitting in the heart of K-Town in Chicago’s North Lawndale community, the store has been a staple of this low-income neighborhood for years. He was located just down the street for 10 years when he first opened before moving to the location where he’s been ever since.
People don’t just come in to buy things. They talk with King, his family or to each other. On this particular Thursday afternoon, five guys stand by the counter talking about some of the problems plaguing the neighborhood – drugs and gangs and such. Like a barbershop, King’s Hardware is a place where conversation on just about any topic can occur. In recent years, the Mississippi native has seen other hardware stores in the community go by the wayside.
“I’m accepting the situation and not even letting it bother me at all,” he said of the store’s status. “What we’re doing is continuing the business independent. I’m just grateful to be operating after all these other people had to go out [of business].”
His store isn’t in any financial trouble. In fact, King says he’s doing just as well as some of Ace’s stores. But some inquiries he’s gotten are under a different impression, thinking he’s desperate to sell.
“I’m not trying to give it away,” he said of former store No. 65 under the Ace banner.
King credits his start in the hardware business to the man who first hired him. He’ll never forget his friend and mentor, Lou Starbaugh, who died in his 80s a few years ago. Starbaugh started a school to train minorities in the hardware trade. King took classes there at night and ran the store on the weekends while working at his other job during the week. King took a leave of absence from the coffee company to see if he wanted to work at a hardware store full-time. He never went back.
King went on to buy his Ace Hardware store on the West Side in 1968. His children have worked there with him through the years, along with Beulah, his wife of more than 60 years. King, who’s called “Mr. Ace” by some in the community, grew up on a farm in Yazoo County in the Mississippi Delta. He’s one of seven children-two of his brothers are deceased. After serving in World War II in the Army, he came to work in Chicago. He’s lived in Oak Park for 28 years. His children also live there.
Rose Mary, his daughter who goes by her married name Lomax, said the family is ready to retire. She’s been working at the store since 1988 after leaving her previous job. When she had her kids, she set up a playpen in the office while working there.
“I set up shop here with my son,” she recalled.
Like her husband and siblings-her brother, who works for a Chicago bank, also helps with the store’s financial reports-Rose Mary holds many jobs at the store.
“I’m the office manager, the janitor. I do a little bit of everything. We all help out and pitch in to keep the business going.”
As for retirement, she said, “It’s time to do some other things. We’re not getting any younger. It’s time to move on to something different. Hardware is the best and we’re lucky to be here, but I think it’s time to venture into something other than hardware.”
Her husband, John, is the store manager, along with other duties. He’s also looking forward to retiring. John has worked at the store longer than his wife. He also followed in his step-dad’s footsteps in the hours put into to the store, working weekends as well. John said he and Rose Mary would like to vacation, something they weren’t always able to do because of the demands at running the store. If a buyer does surface with a good deal for the family, John plans to work with the new owner.
“I will assist them to make sure we don’t lose any community support because of their not seeing the regular faces in here. Most of the people in the community do know me, so that’s something I would offer to the new owner,” he said. “To keep this place going, I would assist anyone until they got grounded.”