Originally built as a Masonic Temple with an upstairs dance hall, Hartman’s Hardware in Shawnee is a store that shows its age, but in a hip way.
It’s small and feels old-timey with its low ceiling, merchandise-packed narrow aisles, and long storefront window only a few feet from Johnson Drive.
“This place was built like a fortress — it had to be with all those people dancing up there,” said owner Mike Unterreiner, leaning his wiry frame against the gray island desk at the store’s center.
Unterreiner started as an employee in 1984 and married Lisa Hartman, one of seven Hartman children, about two years later. Her dad, Red Hartman, owned the business. Lisa’s brother Bob owns their sister store in Mission: Hartman Sentry Hardware.
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Hartman’s Hardware has been open since 1946, when Red Hartman bought Pearson’s Hardware. Unterreiner bought it from Red.
Of course, the million-dollar question is how Hartman’s has stayed in business with two Home Depots, a Lowe’s, an Ace Hardware, and soon a Nuts and Bolts all within a couple of miles.
“We don’t have all the frou-frou stuff like carpet, appliances, and lumber. We’re more hardcore hardware. The nuts and bolts.” He laughed at his poor word choice and corrected himself. “Let’s say the bolts and nuts.”
He paused and scanned the store.
“There’s not a lot to look at here but people come for advice,” he said. And for the service — Unterreiner greets each customer by name. Just that morning, Unterreiner rewired a lamp for $8. The customer had been searching for a new switch but couldn’t find the right size. Unterreiner not only had the switch but installed it.
He also pointed out that contrary to popular belief, their products are not more expensive than the big box stores. The distributors have a way of leveling the playing field with pricing.
Mower repair is a big part of the business. Throughout mowing season, two sides of the building are flanked by mowers either awaiting repair or pickup. He also repairs screens and windows and rents out equipment like rototillers. He cuts glass and sharpens mower blades while the customer waits.
He and his wife weren’t always the only employees. Before the recession hit, Hartman’s had a staff of two or three. Red still worked occasionally until his death in 2007.
Unterreiner’s nephew used to help plow neighboring parking lots with him. At one time they plowed as many as 23, partly as a favor, partly for the extra income. Now that the nephew is grown, Unterreiner only tends a few but says the service is important.
In the community, Unterreiner is an active member of the Shawnee Downtown Partnership and is the chairman of the Downtown Business Association. The city was recently awarded more $240,000 in grant money from the Kansas Transportation Alternatives Program and the Mid-America Regional Council for the Nieman Road Corridor project. The city would like to help the area by maintaining existing businesses like Hartman’s while incorporating new businesses and improving the street’s walkability.
That would make it easier for Hartman’s customers who simply come in to visit Dusty the parrot, a fixture for the past 16 years.
Unterreiner said people wonder if Dusty ever leaves the store. “If she was at my house she’d never get any attention; I’m here 10 to 11 hours a day.”
Anne Kniggendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.