A hundred-plus years of hardware

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June 18, 2002 // UPDATED 1:25 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Gardner Hardware has been Downtown for 118 years, even if women no longer ride bikes in the basement

To new neighbors in the fancy condominiums across Washington Avenue, Gardner Hardware may seem to be exactly what its name implies -- a hardware store run by the Gardner family. What the newcomers may not know is that their commercial neighbor dates back to 1884 and is run by the same family who ran it then.

The fourth-generation descendents of founder H.B. Gardner run Gardner Hardware, 515 Washington Ave. N. -- with the fifth generation cutting their teeth as employees.

How much history is rattling around this operation? Patrick Healy -- the 21-year-old great-great grandson of H.B. Gardner -- recounts grandmother Bunny's tale of the store carrying the first bicycles.

"They had those old-fashioned bikes but when they got them, no one knew how to ride them," Patrick said. "So they had bicycle classes in the basement. Mostly women came to those classes because they didn't want to fall in public when they were learning."

H.B. Gardner pulled into Minneapolis 118 years ago from St. Louis and went into the hardware business with various partners. H.B. had three sons, H.M., G.G. and E.P. When they were old enough, they entered their father's business. Eventually G.G. Gardner passed the business onto his daughter Bunny's husband, Lawrence Healy. Lawrence ran Gardner Hardware with his brother John beginning in the 1950s. Today, Lawrence's son Stephen is Gardner Hardware's president.

As a child, Bunny recalled, she rode display bicycles through the store's aisles. At that time, Gardner Hardware was located at 311 Nicollet Ave. and they carried much more than hardware. "They did a lot of household goods and sporting goods and bicycles and tennis rackets and even toy items," Bunny said.

According to Bunny, their Nicollet location allowed for a lot of walk-in business, which was why they could carry such a wide array of products.

A 1959 Minneapolis Tribune article reported that Gardner Hardware carried 47 types of hammers and over 200 kinds of nails. Photographs of the store's interior show row upon row of paint cans, bicycles, lawn mowers, hoses, watering cans and more.

Looking closely at the old photographs, one can barely decipher a system of pulleys hung from the ceilings.

According to Bunny, the pulley system was the means by which customers paid for their items. She used the pulley-pay system as a Gardner cashier and also when playing games with her siblings.

The sales person, she said, put money in a basket, which would be raised by pulley to a balcony office over the main floor. "We'd handle the cash and send it back down," Bunny said. "As children, when the store wasn't open, we'd send messages to each other with that thinking it was an extra fun thing to do."

She said the pulley system eliminated the need for a cash register on the main floor, where it wouldn't be as secure.

Today, Gardner customers pay for their purchases the regular way. That isn't the only change Bunny has seen in the hardware store.

In 1960, Gardner Hardware left Nicollet Avenue to make room for the Gateway-area redevelopment. The store moved to North Washington Avenue in 1960, an area of Downtown was the retail equivalent of the end of the earth.

The Warehouse District was a true warehouse district, rather than the trendy area it is now. To make up for the drought of walk-in customers, the Healys expanded their builder's hardware lines and subcontracting services and pared down their general merchandise lines.

Gardner Hardware now carries the usual hammers, nails, mops and rope, but also carries industrial-strength supplies that a janitor or carpenter might need. And that's just the first floor. On the rest of the four-story building, most of the 40 Gardner employees work for the subcontracting end of the business.

"Most people just see the first floor and they don't know about the rest," said Patrick Healy. "The hardware store's a front for everything else."

Gardner Hardware now specializes in "openings" -- meaning that they sell the doors, locks, frames, hinges and anything else associated with a door for commercial buildings all over the Twin Cities.

The doors to Target Center, for example, were built from Gardner parts.

Kurt Fink, industrial retail sales manager, said that many of their customers today are from area businesses looking for very specific parts or tools. So Gardner Hardware keeps a list of businesses that might have these parts if they don't carry them.

According to Fink, many of their customers are also architects. "They have the strangest questions," he said. "They'll want to do something like fasten a chair to a wall. It's strange."

Gardner Hardware could be in for more changes in the future. This summer, Patrick Healy has an internship of sorts at the family business. He's working at the store full-time and hope that he and his older brother will someday run Gardner Hardware.

Last summer, Patrick did mostly warehouse grunt work, but this summer's he's getting his hands dirty on the business side. He jokes that the difference between last summer and this summer is that now he occasionally gets to sit down.

Patrick is home for the summer after finishing his sophomore year at the University of Notre Dame and he's come with ideas for marketing plans, advertising and ways to improve business. He speaks fluently and confidently about the company and its history

Patrick's father, Stephen, says that he has welcomed his son's interest. "Patrick brings a lot of enthusiasm and fresh ideas," Stephen said. "We work well together so far."