Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Beach on nuts (and bolts)

Hardware store owner calling it quits after 33 years in Elm City

AFTER 33 YEARS SPENT selling paint, nuts and bolts and mouse traps, as well as making thousands of keys, Len Mullally finally has had enough.
He’d been thinking about closing down his Bunnell Paint & Hardware for many months, but it was the heat, his age (74) and a conversation about a week ago that convinced him it was time.
"One of my customers told me he was looking for a rent, to open a cafe maybe," Mullally said. "He’s not really committed, but …"
Mullally and I agreed coffee shops do well in New Haven, far better than hardware stores.
After thinking about that exchange with his customer, Mullally contacted his landlord, Joseph Reagan, then posted a big sign in the front window of the store at Pearl and Orange streets: "Going out of business sale."
When I saw the sign last week, I felt sadness but not surprise. Everybody knows independent hardware stores are in trouble in this country, along with many other small businesses.
I read the other signs: "For sale: wood chipper, new cash register" and "Buy two, get one free, 20 percent off, except keys" and "Shoplifters: you are on camera!"
Mullally wasn’t overjoyed at the prospect of being interviewed and declined to pose for a photograph. But he gradually warmed up as I asked him about the history of the place and his own history.
The radio in his store was playing that old chestnut by Tommy James and the Shondells, "I Think We’re Alone Now," but it wasn’t true; there was one customer on the premises, buying duct tape, drop cloths, paint and sandpaper.
His name was Matt Higbee and he was upset about that sign in the window. "It’s very convenient for me. I’m fixing up an old house on Edwards Street. I’ll miss having a place around the corner."
He looked around. "I like old hardware stores, the sound of the door. I’ve always been able to find everything I needed here."
Mullally assured him he would be staying open at least through the summer as he weeds out his inventory. "Anybody want to buy 500 boxes of nuts and bolts?" Mullally asked us.
Higbee and I were silent. Mullally said, "You know what it is? Nobody’s got any money."
Mullally lit a cigarette as Higbee departed. We went back to sit in his small office, a space with a portable fan and dozens of wall photos of his kids, grandkids, Mullally bowling and a team shot of the Little League team he used to coach in Hamden. There was also this sign: "I’m the boss."
He told me the store got started on State Street, circa 1951. About a year later, George Bunnell and his wife moved to Orange Street. They brought with them their two full-time workers. One of them was Frankie Mongillo.
When Mullally bought the business in 1975, he kept Mongillo. He couldn’t afford to keep them both. Last year he realized he could no longer afford to keep Mongillo either.
"He was ready to go," Mullally said. "I don’t think he was offended. He’s 87 or 88."
And now it’s time for Mullally to follow Mongillo into retirement, although he admits his wife, Jean, might not like him being underfoot at their home in Hamden.
"For the last five years I’ve just been working for spending money, just to keep busy," he said. "It just got to be too much of a grind — and it’s hot."
Although Mullally had several other fans in use around the store as well as two air conditioners, he noted, "They don’t work like they used to. They’re telling me: ‘Get out!’"
Sure, he blames the ever-bigger suburban hardware stores for luring away customers, but he added, "I used to have a lot of industrial accounts and Yale. As they turn over, you lose contacts, you lose the business."
He has two sons and a daughter, but they’re not hankering to run a hardware store.
He lit another cigarette. Nobody had walked into the store during the 40 minutes we’d been talking. "I’ve been kidding myself for a while," he said. "If I felt good and strong, I’d keep working for peanuts. It’s not worth it anymore."
He regrets he won’t be able to bowl during his retirement. He had to give it up a couple of years ago when gout began to affect his hands.
When I asked him about his feelings for the store, he said, "I’ll miss it, yeah. Good people. One thing I’m really proud of: I turned this from a paint and wallpaper store to a paint and hardware store. The first week I turned away 50-100 people who wanted keys made."
We tried to think of any hardware stores left in New Haven. Hull’s Hardware survives, as does Whalley Hardware.
"It’s the same old story," Mullally said. "People don’t miss you till you’re not there."
Randall Beach can be reached at rbeach@nhregister.com or 789-5766.

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