|The personality and persistence of Bailey's Hardware|
Rochester's Main Street has changed its faces many times in the past 28 years. Old stores have vanished, new stores have come and gone. Different services - medical, financial, fitness - have filled some of the vacancies, yet there are many show windows still staring blankly at passing traffic.
Much of Rochester's central retail base has been preempted by Wal-Mart but not every Main Street retailer has surrendered to that 800-pound gorilla and its southend auxiliaries. Nor are they ever likely to. There's still merchandising life downtown and one needs look no further than Baileys' Hardware to be reassured of that.
Baileys' has been a Main Street fixture for 84 years, those past 28 years under the care of brothers Bob and Dave Bailey who comprise the family's third generation of owners. Its salesroom is an anachronism in the 21st century but it is one that is devotedly preserved by the brothers and staunchly admired by their customers. It is, you see, peculiarly Baileys' and must be nothing different than it is.
Entering from the south door the store's squeaking 90-year-old wooden floor gives notice of your arrival into a 120-foot-long showroom. The sporting goods area on the immediate left features a glass showcase from the A. B. Shore clothing store, once a neighbor to the south. Wooden counters original to the 1912 building continue along the south side, where shelving stretches to the top of the 13-foot high ceiling, upper shelves reached by a rolling ladder.
Toward the rear of the south side one's attention is drawn to 133 small wooden drawers containing various sizes of screws and 59 larger drawers for bolts. These, and the counters, all were fashioned by hand in 1912 at grandfather Stilla Bailey's lumber yard on East Eighth Street at the railroad.
The north portion of the showroom once was dominated by shelving and counters like those on the south, but they have been removed for a more open display of housewares that now dominate that side.
The enthralling ambiance of Baileys' Hardware is heightened by some eyecatching displays near the ceiling.
The most prized of these is in a lighted glass case just inside the southern entrance. Looking out from there in their original feathered finery are 40 varieties of waterfowl once common to Lake Manitou. They were shot by Simon Bailey from 1882-1922 and mounted by him. Simon was the brothers' great-uncle who operated a sporting goods department in the hardware for 20 years. Among the rarest of the specimens are ducks such as canvasback, old squaw, surf scoter, redhead and teal as well as a black crowned night heron and a virginia rail. Two owls and a weasel are added as counterpoints.
On the south wall are the three-legged coyote Bob Kramer once shot on a farm south of town and Frog Walters' nine-point deer rack. On the north wall the brothers have placed 19th century artifacts the hardware didn't sell, such as a cream separator, buggy seat, singletrees and doubletrees and some buggy wheels, the latter of which were found, quite improbably, stuffed into a remote niche between the roof and third floor ceiling.
Over the years Baileys' has outlasted repeated downtown hardware rivals such as Grove Brothers, Baker, Calvin & Myers, Gambles, Larry Kuhn, Coast to Coast, Ace. Not until Wal-Mart began to cast its long shadow in 1991, however, did competition force Dave and Bob to regroup.
Their response was measured and effective. They expanded stock and services in plumbing, electrical and heating to more effectively serve their customers. Specifically, a pipe threader was added so that pipe could be sold in any length, which is not a Wal-Mart service. "Today we sell a ton of pipe," says Dave.
Wal-Mart did wipe out Baileys' major houseware lines such as Revere copperware, Corning glassware, Pyrex and larger electrical appliances. Dave simply shrugged, pumped up the inventory of normal household needs and small appliances and reinforced a consistent best-seller, cast iron cookware.
Paints went out much the same way. Only whites and touch-ups are offered now.
The hardware opens six days a week at 7 in the morning and closes at 5 except on Saturday, when it's 3. Business begins soon after 7, too. Weekday customers are mainly from the plumbing, electrical and maintenance trades.
The do-it-yourselfers come on Saturdays but after noon televised ball games begin and the street empties. That's why the boys close at 3 those days. Women are frequent customers, for the long identification of a hardware store as a male domain has ended.
As important as Baileys' is for hardwares, repairs and practical mechanical advice, it has become even more vital as a place for locals to refresh their spirits with a conversation, That might be with an encountered friend but always with the Bailey brothers. Their quiet and oft-amusing congeniality, their knowledge and appreciation of local history and people and their profound pleasure in a shared witticism are available to all who stop in.
For sportsmen Baileys' is a seasonal shrine, particularly for deer hunters. One time the store had 119 free permits with which a doe hunt license could be obtained. At the store's 7 a.m. opening, a Michigan man was asleep on a cot at the front door and 300 more hunters were lined up southward, around the Eighth Street corner. Another year the store had 2,100 such permits and it took seven people five days to hand them all out.
The store remains popular for hunting and fishing licenses. November sales reach 500 or so and not many Novembers ago it hit 900. Baileys' also deals in ammunition but gun sales became so few that its license was lost. It was a memorable period, though. The store's very first gun buyer was an amiable fellow who was approved by father "Beanie" Bailey. The buyer turned out to be psychotic who threatened the lives of the local judge and prosecutor and had to be rooted out of his house by police. Another time, a shotgun brought in to Simon Bailey for repair actually still was loaded. It discharged, blasting a hole in the ceiling where the patch still is visible.
And so it is that one can buy the tiniest of lightbulbs or the largest of home water heaters at Baileys'. Get the answer to almost any question of mechanics. Appropriate a popular magazine from an eight-inch stack kept constantly replenished by a customer. Call Dave from breakfast across the street for help, such as opening a nearby residential garage door as happened recently. Wait on yourself if you're in a hurry and the boys are busy, make out your own charge slip and be on your way. Get a window glass repaired, a screen door replaced. Or, come in and just while away the time, read about meetings and sales at the front door, wait to see who else shows up, chat with Bob or Dave about current or past events, perhaps show them a curio you've just discovered.
Many do these things and more every day at Baileys' and feel better for it. They may not have bought anything, but they will on another day, and another.
Meanwhile, Dave and Bob Bailey continue their harmonious personal relationship, content in their present, proud of their past and confident of their future. Bob lives in the Lake Manitou home of his late parents, hunts and fishes in his spare time and on occasion kicks back in a one-room cabin he's put up at the Tippecanoe River. Single now, he has four children: Karin Fowler, Rochester; Kim Harshman and Barbara Heisler, both of Beaver Dam, and Rob Bailey, Greeley, Colo. Another daughter, Catherine Bailey, died in an auto accident.
Dave is the store's buyer, generally plots its direction and in his personal life is more adventurous than his brother. He sky dives, rides a motorcycle, makes and paddles kayaks and has just moved into a new house near the Tippecanoe River that he built with help from Bob and friends. Dave is single now also and has two daughters, Michelle Quick and Leslie Goss of Rochester.
None of the brothers' children seem destined to follow their fathers into the business. And so, Dave was asked, does that make them the end of nearly a century of hardware Baileys?
"Not necessarily," replies Dave with a special smile that usually indicates he's had a satisfactory thought. "In 50 years or so we may move on to something else."
Published Dec. 4, 2001
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