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Ernst & Son Hardware set to close, ending 113-year run; 'American Pickers' making a visit
Think of the day when downtown doesn’t have a single coffee shop. It is a crazy impossibility, right? Well, in a different age, the thought of downtown Lawrence not having a single hardware store would’ve caused you to be labeled as having a screw loose.
But as downtown steadily changed from a place with hammers to $7 hamburgers, the crazy became the inevitable. Only Rod Ernst, the proprietor of Ernst & Son Hardware, was left to fight inevitability, wielding an inventory that included everything but an actual time machine.
When Ernst died in January, the questions began to mount about the future of Ernst & Son. Family members in February reopened the store and said they planned to keep it open for the foreseeable future, although they clearly were looking for a buyer or partner in the effort.
This week, family members said the store now plans to close on June 1. That would end the run of a 113-year-old business, one of the oldest of any kind in Lawrence.
“We wish it could continue, but we can’t do it,” said Shirley Ernst, Rod’s widow.
Lynda Allen, Rod’s oldest daughter, said the family will hold out hope “until the last minute” that someone will step forward who wants to operate a hardware store at the location.
“All along there have been people interested in keeping it a hardware store, but nobody has committed to doing it yet,” said Allen, who said the family plans to continue to own the building.
So, the sell-down has begun. The store has discounted pretty much all of its inventory by 40 percent. What’s left after June 1 may be part of an auction or some other type of sale, Allen said.
Before that happens, the crew from the popular History Channel program “American Pickers” will be in the store. That will happen soon, although Allen is being tight-lipped about it because she doesn’t want their presence to cause a commotion. (Indeed, you don’t want 'American Picker' groupies. They would leave downtown in tatters, rolling in on their vintage bicycles, all hopped up on Coca-Cola memorabilia.)
“They are interested in something that we have, but we don’t know what it is,” Allen said. “We hope to get the story of Ernst & Son out on the History Channel, though.”
There is plenty of history in the store, although not all of it is for sale. Allen said one of her main priorities after Rod’s death was to get his personal collections out of the store and to round up the personal history items that were scattered throughout the main floor and basement.
Among those was the original business ledger for the store, which dates back to 1905, when it opened as Kennedy & Ernst. The ledger showed Tom Kennedy and Philip Ernst Sr. both put $2,000 into the business, agreed to share profits and losses equally and committed to keeping “perfect and honest” books at all times. They also received equal salaries: $570.50 per year. The handwritten ledger continued to be kept for decades, showing the 1925 transaction in which Kennedy left the business and Ernst’s son — Rod's father — joined the business and the name of the store was changed to Ernst & Son.
Allen even found a correspondence book where the business kept all its letters. The first one was dated March 1908, and it was “kind of nasty,” Allen said. It was a three-page letter to a manufacturer who sold a product that wasn’t deemed up to the standards of the local hardware store.
In addition, Allen found boxes of old bills and invoices dating back to 1905. She said it is a fascinating way to see which businesses were in operation in the early 1900s and what prices they were charging. Eventually, Allen believes, most of the historical records will end up at the Watkins Community Museum or some other such repository.
“I’m just glad they saw fit to keep it for 113 years,” Allen said. “My dad was really good at saving and fixing.”
Some of the store’s product inventory also falls into the historic category. Allen recently found a box of “covered wagon tacks.” (Think about it: Having a covered wagon in 1905 would be like having an SUV today.) She also found old gas pipes that were part of Lawrence’s early streetscapes. The pipes are made of wood.
No, Allen wasn't able to recognize the pipes for what they are. Instead, Rod had taken the time to label them. Without the labels and notes he’s left behind, the task of running the store these last few months would have been even greater.
“It has been a steep learning curve,” Allen said. “I didn’t know a lot about running a hardware store or a business.”
But in just the few short months she’s been on the job, she’s gained a better understanding of what kept her dad coming into the business virtually every day.
“I get so much from the public,” Allen said. “They come in and say how much he meant to them and how much the store means to them.”
Not everything in downtown Lawrence has changed in 113 years.