John Montandon started working at Sherman Hardware in 1954, when his dad hired him to sweep floors and stock shelves.
He never really left. The after-school job turned into a summer job, then a career for Montandon.
For 64 years, Montandon has been a fixture at the family-owned hardware store in Coeur d’Alene. He works six days a week, helping customers find the supplies they need to remodel bathrooms, paint kitchens and landscape their yards.
Once, years ago, he left the store for a week to take his wife and kids to Hawaii. Other than that, he’s seldom taken a vacation or sick day.
So, when the “Closing sale – 50 percent off most items” signs went up at Sherman Hardware last month, customers started coming in to pay their respects.
Montandon, 74, plans to retire at the end of January. He’ll lease the building at 1010 Sherman Ave. to a church. Though the hardware store supported two generations of his family, “it’s not profitable to sell the business or to pass it along,” Montandon said regretfully.
Much has changed since Montandon’s dad, Richard, bought a Coast to Coast store in the 300 block of Sherman Avenue –the first of three locations for the hardware business. Before Interstate 90 was built, thousands of vehicles passed daily through downtown Coeur d’Alene on U.S. Highway 10. The store did a brisk business in hardware and household items, and even sold trucks and dolls at Christmas.
Over the years, the city’s commercial district and population base shifted to the north, where Lowe’s and Home Depot opened stores. Online shopping also emerged as a competitor. Both trends have made it harder for small retail outlets like his to survive, Montandon said.
“My daughter even buys diapers online,” he said. “It’s the convenience factor.”
In a rapidly changing retail world, customers said Montandon’s courtesy and service stood out. A genial man in a plaid flannel shirt and suspenders, Montandon greets many of his customers by name and takes time to visit with them.
“I’d never make it as a Costco checker,” he said. “I go too slow.”
When a couple brought a stack of items to the checkout, then grumbled about the prices and decided not to buy anything after Montandon had rung up a $30 sale, he was patient and polite. Sometimes, Montandon said, customers don’t understand the value of what they’re buying.
“I’m really going to miss this place,” said Frank Wiedemann, a longtime Sherman Hardware customer. “It’s the small-town feel – you get more friendly service. It’s something that’s disappearing all across the country.”
Sherman Hardware was a throwback to an old-time variety store for the items it stocked. From screws by the pound to kerosene lamps, ladders, tools, birdseed, gas cans, vacuum cleaner bags, greeting cards and a paint department, the store had it.
“If you can’t find it anywhere else, you go to John. He’s got it in the back room,” said Montandon’s friend, Russell McLain, who’s been helping with the store’s closing sale.
“He’s made a retail business work for years and years. It’s not an easy thing to do,” McLain said
Montandon is the great-grandson of Swiss immigrants who farmed near St. Maries. He was born in Coeur d’Alene and started working at the hardware store when he was 11. It was a family venture. His mother, Margaret, was the store’s bookkeeper until she retired on her 80th birthday.
After 17 years in its first location, the hardware store relocated to the old Roxy Theatre on Front Avenue. Sherman Hardware has been in its current location for 30 years.
Montandon graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School and, at his dad’s urging, earned a business degree at University of Idaho. But school was never his forte.
“I was not a good student,” he said. “I did not like school.”
Despite the long hours, Montandon enjoyed the independence of running a small business and working for himself. Most of his customers were do-it-yourselfers, though contractors also stopped in.
“It earned us a good living,” Montandon said. “It’s fun when you’re helping people and making a living.”
As sales dropped off, Montandon became the store’s sole employee. When customers walked through Sherman Hardware’s double doors, they passed a plastic frog with a motion detector. The mechanical croak alerted Montandon, who was often several aisles away, helping someone else.
“He walks you down the aisle to find the little thing you’re looking for,” one customer said.
After he retires, Montandon said he’ll tackle a list of ‘honey-do’ projects from his wife, clean out his shop and spend time on his tractor. The couple owns about 200 acres outside of Coeur d’Alene, where Montandon plans to do some logging and road building.
He’s also looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren, catching some of the childhood moments he missed when his own kids were small.
“I bought a kite for my son when he was 5, but we never flew it,” Montandon said.
By the end of January, Montandon hopes to clear out the store’s inventory, so the church can start making renovations. But emptying out the store may take longer, he said.
“I’ll have part of a hardware store at my house,” Montandon joked to a customer, who wondered where he’d shop after Sherman Hardware closed. “Call me up, and I’ll deliver it.”
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