Dave Gittins is seriously considering getting a T-shirt made that says, "We don't have it." He's just getting tired of saying it to the occasional customer who comes through the door at Strehlow's True Value Hardware, 2675 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
Few customers seem to notice the black-and-white "going out of business" sign in the window, Gittins said. They do, however, see the sign that announces a 50-percent-off sale.
Some merchandise is still left on the shelves of the store that has been a fixture in downtown Bay View since 1908. There's a box of fluorescent lighting tubes, a few pails of paint, and miscellaneous gizmos and gadgets only a handyman could appreciate.
But now even the shelves are coming down. Behind those shelves is a lot of history.
Peeling away past lives
Assorted vintage soda bottles and a stash of old newspapers, one dating back to 1942, have been unearthed. On a wall in the back of the store, another remnant of the past is scrawled in black handwriting: "Poultry netting, 2-inch mesh, 1 cent per square foot" and "Gates $2.50."
A horseshoe nailed to the wall is covered in rust.
High above the aisles, an antique metal ceiling is still intact. Gittins said he believes it is made of copper. Most of it was painted white some time ago, but part of it has been restored with expensive copper paint, applied carefully with a brush until it glowed.
A timeworn ladder on rollers stretches from floor to ceiling. Behind it are cabinets containing hundreds of small drawers that once stored particular parts and supplies. Most are now labeled "MT." Empty.
The drawers were handmade of sheet metal and wood, Gittins said, pulling one out as evidence.
"Lots of people want to buy those," he said, nodding toward the cabinets.
The metal in the drawers probably came from the shed behind Strehlow's, where, Gittins said, Bay View Sheet Metal got started many years ago.
Gittins said Strehlow's was a wallpaper store before it was a hardware store. Traces of that establishment can still be found, too. On a wall behind of one of the cabinets, a piece of Victorian-era wallpaper is fading slowly away.
The jewel of the store sits on its back counter. It is a Detroit-model scale, dating back to the early 1900s.
Gittins said the scale was used to weigh grass seed when it was sold in bulk and nails that were sold by the pound, or even the ounce. At Strehlow's, it was possible to buy one or two nails at a time.
The scale is still functional and is certified accurate.
"The guy who came to certify it said it's more accurate than an electronic scale," Gittins added.
Perfect parts for old homes
In the course of an hour on a Saturday afternoon, just three customers came into the store. A young couple was in search of a certain shade of paint.
"Sorry, we don't have it," Gittins told them.
Linda Ditelo of Bay View stopped in with her granddaughter to pick up a screen she needed repaired. She said she is sorry to see Strehlow's close its doors.
"It's been here for so many years," Ditelo said. "I don't want to see it go, but what are you gonna do?"
Many Strehlow's customers frequented the store because they were able to purchase hardware and plumbing parts to repair older homes, Gittins said. They also were able to get reliable advice on how to use those parts.
"People would ask you a question and they'd get an answer," Gittins said.
Toll of neighborhood change
Modern life has taken its toll on the store's customer base. For one thing, Gittins said, the mix of businesses on South Kinnickinnic Avenue has changed dramatically. A dry cleaning business and a bakery, for example, used to support foot traffic, but they are gone.
"If we were next to Home Depot, we'd probably make out like a bandit," Gittins said.
The mix of boutiques and restaurants does not attract hardware customers, he said.
"Parking is another problem," Gittins added. "People nowadays, if they can't park right in front of the business, they just take off."
Gittins said the store has seen several owners over its nearly 100-year history, but the name remained the same because nobody wanted to change the signs. He said he is not sure what will become of the building now.
With no customers in sight, Gittins stepped out of the store and stood on the front steps, just under the Strehlow's True Value sign. It reads, "Right tools. Local advice. Right here."
But not for long.
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