After more than 70 years, hardware store will close or be sold

After more than 70 years, Stephens will close or be sold

staff writerSeptember 26, 2011 

— A small boy jumped up and down, gesturing to his father, pointing to the ceiling. "The train, the train!"

Above the child a small motorized G-scale Aristocraft train cycled on 600 feet of tracks around the interior of Stephens Ace Hardware at 405 Broad St.

The personal touches of a hometown hardware store are everywhere, down to Pepperjack, the friendly black-and-white rat terrier who patrols the store, greeting guests.

For more than 70 years, Stephens Hardware has served the residents of Fuquay-Varina - surviving the Great Depression, a store fire and the arrival of big-box retailers.

But now its owners are looking to either sell or close by the end of the year. Handing down the family business to a third generation just didn't seem feasible, said owner Ray Stephens, who works part-time at the store.

"We've known for years there would come a time when we would have to pass it on some other way," he said. "It wouldn't stay in the family. It's one of our reasons for making it public. We thought it would give the community some time to think about it."

So far, there have been two people who have expressed interest in buying the store.

No deal has been made yet.

Since announcing the sale a few weeks ago, customers have shown their support.

" 'I hate to hear you're closing, but I understand,' " is what Stephens said he hears from customers.

"This is not about the economy. We've been holding our own through this. We would make this decision now if (the economy) were much better. The difference would be we would have suitors on the doorstep."

Local residents such as Becky Medlin say it's a loss for the community.

Medlin said she remembers going to the store as a little girl and picking seed from the barrels.

Humble beginnings

Ray Stephens' father, Isaac, opened Stephens Farm Supply in 1934.

"It was hard to find things to sell," Stephens said. "He had a truck. If he got word that someone had something to sell that he could resell, he would go buy it and bring it back."

His father received a loan from what was then the Bank of Varina on a handshake, Stephens said.

Back when the community - known as Varina - was a tobacco farm town with a couple hundred residents, there were two pads of checks on the counter from the two area banks.

"Around town everyone knew everyone," Stephens said. "So if you banked with Bank of Varina, you take a counter check and fill it out and sign your name, and that's all you had to do. There were no account numbers on the checks. You just signed it and people at the bank knew and recognized that signature. There weren't that many customers.

"That's just the way you did business."

Varina and neighboring Fuquay Springs were among the few towns that grew during the Depression, according to historical records.

A boon for a business that specialized in horse collars, pruning sheers, seeds and other farm supplies.

The small town store operated on credit and accounts.

"I've heard this story over and over: 'Your dad was the one who gave me my first credit,' " Stephens said. "Or, 'Your dad helped me build my first house. I was a youngster and I was newly married and came in and said I want to build a house.' "

Facing change

The hardware store has changed with the times. A fire burned down the original two-window store next to the old Varina Bank in the late 1960s. The store has been in its current location since the 1970s. In the 1980s the store signed on as an ACE franchise to take advantage of the national branding and advertising.

"I sometimes think my father would roll over in his grave if he could see some of the things we sell," Stephens said. "He grew up selling things that people needed, very utilitarian. I doubt he sold flags, yard banners, grills and Tiki lamps."

As for the future, Stephens said, he doesn't plan to stray too far from the family business.

"I truly am hopeful that we will sell the business to somebody," he said. "I am hoping Pepperjack and I will be welcome visitors."

aramos@newsobserver.com or 919-460-2609

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