By Rafe Semmes, Local columnist.
Ours was a relatively small firm, although it did not seem so at the time, to my inexperienced eyes; grossing about $4 million annually at our peak, and with about 45 employees. The employees were roughly divided equally between our warehouse crew, office staff, and the territory salesmen, who lived and worked from their hometown bases across the three states.
It was a business model that worked well for many years, and provided a decent living for us, although none of us got rich. This was back in the days when crime was low, people were friendly and could be taken at their word, and well before modern scourges like car-jackings and personal-injury attorneys exploded forth to plague the populace.
The best part of the job, to me, was getting to know the customers. Our delinquency rates were generally low, except for a few accounts who were perpetually under-funded and routinely paid late, but paid regularly enough we weren’t really worried about them.
When I had to close the firm in late 1983, I was fortunate to be able to sell the inventory to another wholesaler in North Carolina, and did that in just one week; and then collected our remaining half-million or so in accounts receivables in just a few months, writing off only $2,000 that had really been uncollectible some months back, just not written off before.
Most folks responded promptly to my request to clear their accounts as soon as possible, so that I could pay our suppliers and wind up our affairs.
An honorable end to a long-time business.
Which brings me back to my two recent trips across South Carolina.
Much of Georgia and SC back then were grounded in agriculture, except for the bigger cities like Savannah and Augusta, Charleston and Columbia. Wal Mart and Home Depot had not yet exploded across the country, helping to drive out many of the smaller family firms that simply could not compete, pricewise, in the face of those high-volume purchasers.
In those days, the local hardware stores sold just about everything but clothes, groceries, cars and drugs, and were mainstays of their local towns. Some of them still survive, to this day. But the ones in the smaller towns are mostly gone, or have changed character altogether. I well remember my late father’s frustration when he once told me that we could no longer sell hunting rifles and shotguns at wholesale prices to our retail customers, when their own customers could buy them for less at Wal-Mart, if they had one close by. And one fall, a boxcar-load bicycles was never delivered, because the manufacturer shipped them instead to a larger competitor, to complete a bigger order.
A major disaster for our firm.
Many children in our three-state trading area went without Christmas bicycles that year, due to this perfidy. We suffered an enormous black eye in the eyes of our own customers, who had placed orders for those bikes and been promised delivery in time for Christmas. It was not our fault, but there was nothing we could do.
Brooker’s True Value Hardware in Denmark SC was one such long-time customer, whose two-story building took up most of an entire city block, just down the street from the grocery store that is now home to the Jim Harrison Gallery. I well remember delivering orders there the one summer I worked as a truck driver’s helper, and was surprised to see such a big building in such a small town. It literally took up half of that small town’s “downtown.”
Today, sadly, the hardware business is gone. In its place is a women’s clothing and gift shop, run by Mr. Brooker’s daughter, who is now probably older than I am. I don’t know what will happen to it when she passes on.
Rafe Semmes is a native of Savannah and a proud graduate of (the “original”) Savannah High School on Washington Avenue and the University of Georgia. He has resided in Liberty County since 1986, where he and his wife share their half-acre with six cats and assorted wildlife. He has served on several area non-profit boards, and is a longtime member of Rotary Club.