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Clark: ‘Family feel’ marked Stewart’s hardware store

Sun., Jan. 29, 2012, midnight

Businesses thrive. Businesses die.

And the circle of capitalism spins on.

Even so, Stewart’s True Value Hardware shouldn’t slip away without a proper send-off.

Soon, the vastly marked-down merchandise will be gone. The open sign will wink off for the last time, signaling the end for Spokane’s oldest hardware store in one location.

According to owner Mike Czechowski, the triangle-shaped building at Northwest Boulevard and Monroe Street has been home to a hardware store since 1912, when the White House was home to William Howard Taft.

Reaching the century mark would be cause for celebration if the lousy economy didn’t have Mike “taking money out of savings to keep the doors open.”

Add a sore back to that equation and, well, the 66-year-old’s decision was clear.

I dropped in on Mike and his wife, Daun (pronounced like the sunrise), last week after learning that the end was nigh.

I don’t haunt hardware stores very often unless it’s to accompany my lovely wife, Sherry, who can handle a socket wrench with the best of them.

As president and founder of Men Who Can’t Build, I know tools about as well as I speak Farsi.

Still, the Czechowskis welcomed me warmly, which is one of the legendary benefits of a mom-and-pop establishment.

This is the real deal, what all hardware stores were like before megastores like Home Depot came along to change the game forever.

Little has changed over the years at Stewart’s.

Scarred wood floors. Faded pegboard walls in white and yellow. Cast-iron radiators distributing heat.

From high on a shelf, a 1960-something transistor radio adds a speaker’s worth of musical ambience.

Mike entered the hardware business in 1977 when his father, the late Theodore Czechowski, bought the place.

Mike took ownership five years later, marrying Daun in 1983.

The store name, if you’re wondering, comes from Irwin G. Stewart. He bought the business from C.D. Martin, a former Washington governor, in 1946.

As with every small enterprise, “people are the best and worst part,” said Daun.

When I asked for a favorite memory, she told me the story of a rather unpleasant woman who purchased some paint.

The Paint Lady, as she is now called, set the cans in the bed of her truck, which for reasons unknown lacked a tailgate.

You can guess what happened.

The woman took a turn too fast. Two cans rolled out. One popped its lid with splattering results.

Now even more sour, the Paint Lady returned to demand a refund on the empty.

Since one can hadn’t opened, she argued, the other can had to have been defective.

In Mike’s mind, there was a far simpler force at work: “Dumb luck.”

He told her so and bid her adieu.

Perhaps the most amazing part of that story is that Daun is around to tell it. During our conversation, she casually mentioned receiving a heart transplant 17 years ago.

Her heart started going bad out of the blue, she said.

A triple bypass was performed, which improved her condition for maybe a half-hour.

With his wife out for the count, Mike said he made the call to put Daun on the list for a transplant.

Machines kept her alive long enough to receive a donor organ. The match (obviously) was superb.

Heart. That’s a fine metaphor for what it takes to run a small family business.

And this place is the very definition of a family business.

“Our babies (Anna and Kate) were here from the time they were born,” said Daun.

“We put a crib in the office and set up a playpen at the end of the counter. It was wonderful having them here.”

Now, the inventory inside Stewart’s has been picked over since Mike put the “closure” signs in the store windows facing traffic.

But there are still plenty of items available, like padlocks, fan belts and Plexiglas-handled toilet plungers.

A gleaming washtub sells for $24.95. Nobody washes clothes in those things anymore, of course. But the tubs are indispensible if you’re planning a kegger.

Copper pipes. Extension cords. Thermostats.

Mike and Daun walked me back to a wall to show me the fan scale that has been weighing nails since the early 1920s.

And still accurate to the ounce, added Mike.

Businesses thrive. Businesses die.

Either way, Mike Czechowski has his work cut out for him.

“I’ve got to do all the things I’ve put off for the last 25 years,” he said, flashing a grin. “I don’t even get to go fishing.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.


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