For Decatur’s Intown Hardware, family and creativity will survive Wal-Mart

By Michelle Hiskey

When big-box Wal-Mart announced plans to move into indie-minded Decatur, neighbors mobilized protests. A legal campaign began. Anti-Wal-Mart yard signs popped up.

Tony Powers is one of the owners of Intown Ace Hardware in Decatur, across from a planned Wal-Mart development at Suburban Plaza.(Photo by Ben Smith)

Across the road from the planned development, Tony Powers keeps the keen eye and taste that has made his family business – Intown Ace Hardware – survive and succeed. As the world gets more homogeneous, his answer is a more diverse identity.

“I never thought I would have a hardware store with two lines of perfume and seven lines of organic candles,” he said. “Costume jewelry is also hot. I never thought this would be who we are.”

Decaturites have protested Wal-Mart for several reasons, including its potential to big-foot the thriving small economy represented by Intown Hardware and other boutique retailers.

Yard sign against Wal-Mart in Decatur.

Yard signs in Decatur protest the big-box plans.

Their evolving eclecticism that mirrors the funky flowering of Decatur itself.

For Powers and his business partner Dave Jones, who benefit from the Ace national buying collective, that transformation meant ordering Adirondack chairs in sherbet colors; devoting prime shelf space to Decatur-logoed license plates and apparel; letting loose with fun events such as a staff Pirate Day, documented on the store’s website.

Walk in at the right time, and you can scoop your own bag of popcorn freshly popped in the old-fashioned cart near the front register. Across the aisle is a counter lined with old wooden baseball bats – collected first by a lawyer who lived next door, who bartered them for rent when Intown Hardware expanded. In lieu of advertising, the store prefers to sponsor youth teams, school auctions and community fundraisers. Ask a cashier about their year-round inventory of Girl Scout cookies.

Pirate Day at Intown Ace Hardware mirrors the eclectic Decatur vibe. Powers is third from left. (Store photo)

Americana like that helps Decatur create a small-town feel on the eastern border of Atlanta, and Wal-Mart will test that grassroots support.

“They are going to own the market, especially in storage and cleaning,” Powers said.

He’s moving out the Clorox; in comes the specialty organic cleansers.

“We’re going after unique,” he said. “Topiaries and specimen plants – we just sold a couple of $400 trees. More organic and more local products – Wal-Mart can’t adapt to that quickly or at all.”

Tony Powers unloads eco-friendly products. His hardware store relies on specialty sales and superior service to survive against larger retailers. (Photo: Ben Smith)

Powers and Jones survived a similar scare and reinvention two decades ago when Kmart opened three miles east.

“Their home improvement line, ‘Builders Square,’ rolled out before our present business model had evolved,” Powers said. “We had the first Home Depot up the street too. Fortunately for us, Kmart didn’t know what it was doing.”

Home Depot is still there, and Intown stopped selling lawn mowers and standard barbecue grills long ago. That opened space for building materials for chicken coops and support for school gardens.

Wal-Mart says its nearby Suburban Plaza location will not have a garden center, and Powers is taking the corporate giant at its word. He has made field trips to Bates Ace Hardware (est. 1921) on Atlanta’s west side, to see how it was faring against the Wal-Mart on Howell Mill Road. “We should be fine as long as Wal-Mart does what they say they are going to do,” Powers said.

[Note: After this story was published, Wal-Mart’s Director of Community & Media Relations, William C. “Bill” Wertz, notified me of this correction: “There will be a garden center in our new store. It was overlooked in some preliminary discussions with the community, but we corrected that back in October of 2011. The GC [garden center]  is in our official application and has been discussed at multiple public meetings and approved by the [DeKalb] county board of zoning appeals.”]

Founders of Intown Ace Hardware including Tony Powers and Dave Jones

After Intown Ace Hardware opened in the mid-1980s, Tony Powers (left) and Dave Jones (center) became co-owners. Joe Eifrid (right) and his brother Doug built the store. (Store photo)

Another resource against super low prices is attentive customer service: 30 employees who can find and demo everything in the store, “Wal-Mart can’t match us on that,” Powers promised. “You’re not going to go in there and talk to one of Sam Walton’s heirs, or go to Home Depot and talk to Bernie Marcus.”

More than anything, Intown’s survival depends on support from local families who recognize themselves in the folks behind the counter. Here, Powers works two miles from his childhood home where his mother Barbara still lives; his daughters Diondra and Alexandra have worked alongside him. Jones has two sons, Alex and Andy, who also help out there.

The store was founded in 1984 by a pair of brothers, Doug and Joe Eifrid, a satellite to their successful debut of Intown Hardware in Virginia Highland. The Eifrids built the Decatur store from the ground up, with help from Jones; Powers came on part-time in 1985 at his mom’s insistence (“This is the longest part-time job I’ve ever had!” he joked) and became a partner in 1996.

Dave Jones, Tony Powers and their wives chill out in front of Intown Ace Hardware. A family atmosphere may well be a key to economic survival as Wal-Mart moves in across the street. (Store photo)

The long-term question is whether that local DNA and specialization will be enough. Powers figures he’ll take a 10 percent hit in sales off the bat before the Wal-Mart honeymoon ends. He recognizes the myriad of conveniences that a big-box store offers – the wide aisles and deep discounts that a small business can’t touch.

“I love Costco,” Powers said. “I got to Costco religiously. The merchandise mix is phenomenal.”

What got him in the door there, though, was what his store uniquely offers: a friendly face. “One of my [University of Georgia] roommates manages the Costco in Gwinnett,” he said. “If one of those stores had gone into North DeKalb Mall, I would go there every day.”

 

Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer based in Decatur. She can be reached at michelle.hiskey@gmail.com

 

About Michelle Hiskey

Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and writing coach based in Decatur, and her day job is senior editor on Emory University's development communications team. Michelle worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years as a sports reporter, columnist and Sunday feature writer, and her stories of recovery and redemption bridge unexpected places and people across Atlanta. She lives in Decatur with her husband Ben Smith, also a journalist, and their two awesome daughters. She can be reached at michelle.hiskey@gmail.com.
This entry was posted in Life Changes, Michelle Hiskey, Reinvention, Saporta, Transformation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
19 comments
Magnolia Talon
Magnolia Talon

There some very impressive points in your blog. I must appreciate your excellent work. I find the blog post very interesting and moreover very informative. I am thinking to write a piece on related topic. Will definitely share it and waiting to read some more interesting blogs from you. http://www.poppers-nz.co.nz/

Adrian Lewis Bet
Adrian Lewis Bet

This posting is marvelous and what a fantastic research that you have done. It has helped me a lot. thank you very much.

Boat Parts
Boat Parts

You are just an excellent.thanks for sharing

Boat Parts
Boat Parts

You are just an excellent.thanks for sharing

UrbanTraveler
UrbanTraveler

I hope the unique mix of shops and services in and around Decatur will survive the arrival of Walmart.  This mix of retailers is one of the best parts of the "Decatur Experience."  It sounds like these retailers are getting ahead of the curve and anticipating how they will have to change to continue to provide the added value a big-box store like Walmart cannot.  

 

A larger point that all of the protests brings up is how small communities that are part of a larger urban/suburban area can both maintain their character, promote the individual entrepreneurs who are so valued by the community, and grow in the reality of the modern American retailing scene.  It's important to note that the Suburban Plaza site sits just outside the Decatur City Limit, subject to the DeKalb County review process and not the City of Decatur process.  Annexation to the city of this and other areas has long been a subject of debate.  Small communities like Decatur have to weigh the downside of annexation with the upside, which includes the ability to shape development outcomes that affect it while increasing a commercial tax base to pay for the kind of development the community values.

UrbanTraveler
UrbanTraveler

I hope the unique mix of shops and services in and around Decatur will survive the arrival of Walmart.  This mix of retailers is one of the best parts of the "Decatur Experience."  It sounds like these retailers are getting ahead of the curve and anticipating how they will have to change to continue to provide the added value a big-box store like Walmart cannot.     A larger point that all of the protests brings up is how small communities that are part of a larger urban/suburban area can both maintain their character, promote the individual entrepreneurs who are so valued by the community, and grow in the reality of the modern American retailing scene.  It's important to note that the Suburban Plaza site sits just outside the Decatur City Limit, subject to the DeKalb County review process and not the City of Decatur process.  Annexation to the city of this and other areas has long been a subject of debate.  Small communities like Decatur have to weigh the downside of annexation with the upside, which includes the ability to shape development outcomes that affect it while increasing a commercial tax base to pay for the kind of development the community values.

cmercer
cmercer

I will NEVER shop at Walmart! They build, take over a shopping center and in a few years abandon the building and shopping center, only to rebuild down the street. The abandoned shopping center falls into disrepair, and becomes a blight on the neighborhood. Why do they need another store in Decatur? The one at Memorial and Columbia is so close. Shame on DeKalb Zoning if they allow Walmart to move in!

cmercer
cmercer

I will NEVER shop at Walmart! They build, take over a shopping center and in a few years abandon the building and shopping center, only to rebuild down the street. The abandoned shopping center falls into disrepair, and becomes a blight on the neighborhood. Why do they need another store in Decatur? The one at Memorial and Columbia is so close. Shame on DeKalb Zoning if they allow Walmart to move in!

Mikelark
Mikelark

Hmm. Now I really am against Walmart. According to the BizChron in NOVEMBER:

The new Walmart will sell general merchandise and groceries, but will not have a tire center nor a garden center, said Glen Wilkins, senior manager of public affairs and government relations for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT.) “We just don’t have the room to do it.” http://bit.ly/InyoJ7

Mikelark
Mikelark

Hmm. Now I really am against Walmart. According to the BizChron in NOVEMBER: The new Walmart will sell general merchandise and groceries, but will not have a tire center nor a garden center, said Glen Wilkins, senior manager of public affairs and government relations for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT.) “We just don’t have the room to do it.” http://bit.ly/InyoJ7

Victoria
Victoria

As a small business, Intown is a great fit for our community, but Wal-Mart will threaten it as they have done in so many regions, both rural and urban. I hope that since Wal-Mart has broken its promise, Intown will align with GGD and support efforts to keep it out of the Decatur area. 

 

The recent NY Times investigation of Wal-Mart's nefarious business tactics in Mexico has blown the cover off of its overtly corrupt form of capitalism. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/25/business/wal-mart-says-it-is-tightening-internal-controls.html

Victoria
Victoria

As a small business, Intown is a great fit for our community, but Wal-Mart will threaten it as they have done in so many regions, both rural and urban. I hope that since Wal-Mart has broken its promise, Intown will align with GGD and support efforts to keep it out of the Decatur area.    The recent NY Times investigation of Wal-Mart's nefarious business tactics in Mexico has blown the cover off of its overtly corrupt form of capitalism. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/25/business/wal-mart-says-it-is-tightening-internal-controls.html

Robert
Robert

Walmart's Bill Wertz is a liar.  Walmart informed community groups in late 2011 that the proposed Suburban Plaza store would not include a garden center or tire center.  Walmart is not a good neighbor and will eliminate more jobs than it creates.  This is not the kind of "development" needed by Decatur.  For an excellent review of literature published between 2002 and 2010 on Walmart's deleterious effects check out the following: http://advocate.nyc.gov/files/Walmart.pdf.

Michelle Hiskey
Michelle Hiskey

[Note: After this story was published, Wal-Mart's Director of Community & Media Relations, William C. "Bill" Wertz, notified me of this correction: "There will be a garden center in our new store. It was overlooked in some preliminary discussions with the community, but we corrected that back in October of 2011. The GC [garden center] is in our official application and has been discussed at multiple public meetings and approved by the [DeKalb] county board of zoning appeals."]

Michelle Hiskey
Michelle Hiskey

[Note: After this story was published, Wal-Mart's Director of Community & Media Relations, William C. "Bill" Wertz, notified me of this correction: "There will be a garden center in our new store. It was overlooked in some preliminary discussions with the community, but we corrected that back in October of 2011. The GC [garden center] is in our official application and has been discussed at multiple public meetings and approved by the [DeKalb] county board of zoning appeals."]

Yvonne Stanley
Yvonne Stanley

I don't ever shop at Walmart and I will not start now. I wish my friend Tony the best and I hope he retains all of his customers in Decatur.

dawgontap
dawgontap

@mistercrayfish I can actually talk to Tony...I ain't gonna get to talk to Sam Walton.

dawgontap
dawgontap

@mistercrayfish I can actually talk to Tony...I ain't gonna get to talk to Sam Walton.