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Love for Retail Lasts Through the Years, Leads to Dream Job

Jay Bullock is the owner of Jay’s Ace Hardware in Wrens, Ga., and author of “So You Want A Hardware Store“. He also runs retail consultancy Bullock Retail Advisors with his son, Preston, and writes about his experiences running a hardware store for hardwareretailing.com. In his first post, he shares how he first got into the business of hardware retailing.

I began my career in this industry as a 16-year-old floor sweeper in one of those cool old wood floor 30- by 80-foot downtown Main Street hardware stores. Five months later my boss and mentor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and before the year was out he passed away. The only other employee left the company a few weeks after the funeral. I was the only one left when the boss’s son came home from college to help his mother sell the store.

After a couple weeks, the former owner’s son, a few years older than me, suggested I try to find some help to keep the place going. So I did just that, hiring a high school friend and a young woman the former boss had told me would be a great employee. (Today, 34 years later, she is and has been a great wife.)

The rest is history. I did a two-year stint then went off to help my father-in-law’s dairy farm. But I loved retail, too. Several years of long, hard labor found me back sweeping floors in the new store my young boss had built. I worked my way back up the ladder and spent 10 years there.

It was during the ninth year that I realized I actually enjoyed working at a hardware store. That sounds dumb, I know, yet in my heart I longed for a farm. I even tried farming and working at the store for several years.

I was so busy dreaming about being “on the farm” that I never let myself stop long enough to realize the joys of retailing. And I loved selling “stuff”—the thrill of the deal, the joy that comes from building a great eye-catching display and watching the product fly out the door. There’s a rush that comes from that which feeds an addiction. Why else would we do it?

Seizing an Opportunity

So there I was, plugging away in my new career, and my wife says, “Hey if you’re going to do hardware, why not have your own?” I thought this was a splendid idea.

Early one morning I drove to the neighboring village of Gibson, Ga., which has a population of 300. As a teenager I’d lived in the next town over and often stopped and dreamed of owning this store. The veteran shopkeeper Loys Chalker would always tease me with the same greeting, “You come to buy me out son?” I’d answer yes, and we’d both laugh.

This particular morning was the same, but instead of laughing he said, “Son this time I am serious!” I said I was too, and in 10 minutes we carved out a verbal agreement, which eventually became a solid deal.

Excited, I stopped at the first phone booth to tell my wife of our good fortune. At work I told my boss I’d be leaving soon.

The next day my boss made me an offer I couldn’t refuse to keep me from getting away. He calmly suggested I hire someone to run my store so I could manage both stores from his location. These were great folks.

I hired my father-in-law, Chester, to be my storekeeper and took a week’s vacation to make the transition. During that week I gave Chester a crash course in retailing and we were off and running.

But by the end of the first year I felt restless again. Chester was settled in and there was no room for the both of us.

I never imagined Chester would enjoy retailing. In the back of my mind I expected him to last a year or so. As it was, he was great at it. I, however, once again, was feeling restless. I wanted to be my own boss. I was, and am, extremely independent. My job was great. My bosses were great. The pay was great. But I was restless.

Chester was becoming more comfortable every day and I soon realized it would never be me working in that store.  It was “his” and I was glad for him. Then it happened.

One night I had a dream. In the dream I saw a store building with a small, cardboard, handwritten sign “For Rent” and a phone number for someone I knew.  Then the dream fast-forwarded and we were running this store. There was lumber and stuff all over the front yard and lots of people coming and going. My wife and children were all working there.

In the morning, as I drove to my job I thought of my dream. I rolled this over in my mind and wondered where I’d seen that building.  As I crossed the railroad tracks on the south end of town I glanced to my left and my heart about stopped! There was the building, and I caught a glimpse of a small cardboard sign!

Astonished, I pulled in for a closer look. Sure enough, just like in the dream, not only was the sign identical but the phone number belonged to a friend.

I went to work and called my prospective landlord. We met at noon and on a handshake made a deal, which we finally put on paper 19 years later.

In two months we opened Jay’s Hardware and Building Center.

About Jay Bullock

Jay Bullock is the owner of Jay's Ace Hardware and the author of So You Want A Hardware Store. Starting as a small 3,000-square-foot store to a current 12,000-square-foot store he has always kept his customers in mind in products and shoppablity of his store. Now as his son, Preston Bullock is becoming a partner after growing up in the business, he continues to lead the business to better customer service.

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