Monday, June 21, 2004

Hardware store survives flood, fires, competition

By Travis Gettys
Enquirer contributor

COVINGTON - In an era when some retailers close stores simply because they don't conform to companywide architectural standards, 100-year-old Zimmer Hardware is an anomaly.

The business, at 537 Pike St. since 1925, has survived two catastrophic fires, the flood of 1937 and the emergence of national retail chains in its century of operation.

"Our big advantage is the knowledge, the personal service," said owner Mike Young, who began working part-time at the store as a high school student in 1969.

Young met his wife, Christine, while the two worked at the store, which has been staffed by descendents of Charles Zimmer since he opened a hardware store in May 1904.

"It's been a real family operation," said Young, who purchased the store four years ago with his wife, Zimmer's great-granddaughter.

In an economic climate "where most businesses fail after five years, to stay in business for 100 years is remarkable," said Covington City Commissioner Craig Bohman. "To have it stay in the family for four generations is even more astounding."

Zimmer originally opened a grocery store at 12th and Hermes streets in the 1890s, Young said, and a competition developed with Cincinnati grocer Barney Kroger.

"(Zimmer) would get the Kroger ads when they came out, and he would watch those prices," Young said. "The next day he would have those prices in his store."

To stay competitive, Zimmer offered coupons for housewares with the purchase of groceries, and Young said the focus of the business began to shift.

"The hardware business was growing faster, and there was more competition in the grocery business," he said.

A 1925 fire destroyed the original location of the hardware store, and Zimmer moved his business to its current location in a building that had housed stables for the nearby Bavarian Brewery.

Zimmer sold the store in 1930 to his sons, Carl and Bert Zimmer, who operated the business through the Depression and the 1937 Ohio River flood, which reached as high as the store's ceiling.

"They were able to move some merchandise up to a warehouse," Young said. "Other stuff they just put up on the counter, thinking it would be all right, (but) they woke up that morning and it was all over the place."

Bert Zimmer suffered a heart attack at the store in 1964, and his brother sold the business to his son and daughter-in-law, Bob and Emily Von Holle.

A 1981 electrical fire forced Zimmer Hardware to close for six months, which had a debilitating impact on the business.

"During that time, customers found somewhere else, got new habits," Young said. "It took awhile to get back to where we were."

The latest challenge is big box retailers, which boast lower prices and more parking, but Young said they can't compete with years of experience.

"People will describe what they want to do, but they don't know what they need," he said. "We've seen it and done it."

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