By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV
People say retail is dead. No one wants to shop locally anymore. They would rather shop online or visit a big box store. So they say.
Three-plus years into owning Kittles Hardware Store in Union, owners Chris & Anita Wszolek respond, “Retail is not dead. It’s very much alive.”
Judging from my visit to Kittles on a Wednesday morning in mid-April, business is booming. Customers came in to purchase large items like mowers and small items like garden shears. Others came in to talk and share the latest town news. A local farmer brought in items from his family farm to sell on the shelves.
And speaking of the shelves–no big box store or online retailer can touch the quality, depth, or variety of items on the shelves at Kittles. They sell Stihl power equipment, Milwaukee tools, PPG paint, local honey, seeds for your garden, pet supplies, and everything else you could ever want in a hardware store. You can even buy a moon pie and an RC cola!
“We wanted to recreate the old general store,” says Chris. “Our goal was to double sales in five years to make the business model work. We actually ended up quadrupling sales in the first year.”
How did they do it? For starters, they stayed true to the store’s roots in the community.
The store’s history
After serving as a general store in the 19th century, the Boon Brothers converted the building into a Model T factory. They embraced modern technology and wanted to capitalize on the advancements occurring in machinery and equipment. According to legend, Henry Ford even visited once on one of his famous excursions through the countryside. He ran out of gas, and the Boon Brothers filled him up.
It eventually became a Chevrolet dealership and then a general auto repairs shop, before the Kittle family purchased it in the 1950s. They opened a feed & supply store to serve local farmers. By the 1960s, they expanded to hardware as well. In the 1970s as people moved to the area, Kittles was a booming business.
Vernon & Carol Kittle, a married couple who owned and ran the store together, both died a little over a decade ago. The Kittle family continued to operate the store, but they were looking for new owners.
Chris & Anita were one of their biggest customers. They’d lived all around the world. But they chose to retire in Union in order to renovate the historic Elmwood home.
“We moved here for the old-fashioned values, the history, the small businesses,” Chris remembers. “It felt very much alive with possibility.”
The Kittles approached them asking for help in finding a new owner. Time passed, and no one stepped forward.
“We were having a glass of wine on the porch one night,” says Chris. “We realized it was us. They were talking to us and asking us to buy the business.”
That was never their plan. Their plan was to restore Elmwood and enjoy retirement. And while they loved the store and the town, Chris had concerns. “Will people come back to shop here? Can this business be profitable? Will it all fall on us?”
“We put our roots down here,” recalls Anita. “So we decided to do it. We just quietly started working, and we uncovered the beauty of this place.”
They called it their “joyful disaster.” The roof had leaked for 30 years. The inventory hadn’t been updated. The building needed some serious attention. The customer base had fallen off. But the potential was limitless. And the more they did, the more people wanted to be part of the transformation.
After four months of renovations, people came in the store and said it felt like they were stepping back in time. Kittles has the feel of an old general store from the frontier days, but it also has all the latest and greatest modern gear. It’s truly the best of both worlds. And people loved it.
“Our goal was to double sales in five years to make the business model work,” says Chris. “We actually ended up quadrupling sales in the first year.”
Small town comeback
Today, they have a thriving business with approximately 14,000 square feet in a town of less than 500 people.
“People need smiles,” says Bobby Pitzer, store manager of Kittles. “They may not come in smiling, but we try to have them smiling when they leave.”
The basement serves the storage area for everything from tractors to chainsaw parts to air filters. It also house the small machine repair area. The main floor is a well-stocked hardware store that puts big box stores to shame. They also carry a variety of local products such as Mountain Folk Coffee, Arbaugh Farms cornmeal and sorghum, Daniels Maple Syrup, Beeful honey, & CBD products from Dovetail Ridge Farms. The upper level is an antiques shop that also recently hosted a live music concert. They stock everything from historic signs to furniture to restored appliances to a mounted fish originally caught by Barbara Mandrel.
“Small towns are coming back,” Chris promises. “If you have an idea, the sky is the limit.”
Since they’ve been such successful local developers, I asked them what advice they’d give to others working on small town comebacks in West Virginia?
Chris responded, “You don’t need a grant. You don’t need to wait for the government to give you something. Don’t be afraid to take a risk and believe in your idea. Take a risk, work like hell, and make it happen.”
Kittles Hardware is located at 405 Main Street in downtown Union. They are open Monday-Saturday from 8am-6pm and from 12pm-6pm on Sunday.