Ace Hardware celebrates record longevity in Skokie
Kim Johns (right) of Skokie looks for the the right tubing last year at Ace Hardware, one of the oldest continuing businesses in Skokie. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Location: 5035 Oakton St., downtown Skokie
Record: Oldest continuing business in the village
Start: Conflicting accounts have the business starting in either 1895 or 1905.
Name change: In 1928, the business signed on with the Ace Hardware cooperative and became the ninth store in the chain.
Downtown: Moved to its current Oakton Street location in the mid-1940s
Updated: September 3, 2012 12:31PM
SKOKIE -- “It’s like Mayberry, like a little town store,” asserted employee Elizabeth Burton last year when she surveyed her workplace, Ace Hardware in downtown Skokie. “People know each other here.”
One could have made the same statement about Ace Hardware at any time over the last 100 years or so.
The store at 5035 Oakton St. is the oldest continuous running business in Skokie even if it hasn’t always been called Ace or been located downtown. It is possibly the oldest running retailer in Ace’s chain of thousands.
Ace has been celebrating what it considers a 100th anniversary over the last year or so, culminating with a barbecue Saturday where boy scouts from Troop 72 prepared hot dogs for customers on the premises. The mayor was scheduled for a visit to honor the store.
In fact, Ace may even be older than a century.
When Pioneer Press last year visited the oldest business in Skokie, it had a scattering of regulars who had been coming there for decades.
“I’ve been coming here before I could even walk,” said customer Jeff Shafer who was 53 at the time. “This is one of the happiest places in town, and it still exists just like it did 50 years ago.”
Or maybe more than a century ago.
A picture in the “Images of America” book series on Skokie shows the Niles Center Mercantile Co. — the former name of the business — from around 1907. Conflicting accounts have the business starting in either 1895 or 1905.
“The location of this business remains a mystery,” authors Amanda J. Hanson and Richard J. Witry state.
The Busscher family ultimately ran the operation. In 1928, the business signed on with the Ace Hardware cooperative and became the ninth store in the chain.
That’s a chain that now includes some 4,200 stores in all states and 60 countries. One family and its different generations and branches owned the Skokie store for decades whether their name was the Busschers or the Grosses or the Lieses.
The Skokie Mercantile Exchange, as the store was called after Niles Center became Skokie, moved to its current Oakton Street location in the mid-1940s. But the amazing thing is that no matter where it was located before, this hardware store never stopped operating — even between moves.
More than a dozen years ago, Paul McGivern bought the store, the first time Ace came under ownership by someone not connected to the original family.
“I didn’t really appreciate the gravity,” McGivern said. “That’s a tremendous responsibility to keep this place going. I learned that the people of Skokie love this store and it’s got a real history. It’s up to me to keep it afloat.”
McGivern always wanted to own his own business, he said. After holding two other jobs, he took the plunge and contacted Ace about buying a store.
But he wasn’t thinking Skokie when this store was suggested to him.
“I said I don’t think so because the store was kind of a dump then,” he recounted. “It was falling apart.”
The previous patriarch of the store had died and the store had been left to another family member who became ill. It languished for three or four years and had well below acceptable inventory before McGivern came on board.
But McGivern came to realize Skokie’s store could be “a diamond in the rough” with Ace’s support. He learned that this was one of Ace ’s highest grossing retailers for many years — especially when Skokie and the suburbs began to grow.
McGivern and Ace returned stock to the store. Some of the inside was changed, especially the basement, which was opened up more. And after a driver plowed into the storefront window a few years ago, McGivern upgraded the facade with the help of a village assistance program.
Even with these changes, the store has never relinquished a corner store feel.
And as other independent hardware store retailers have gone out of business — thanks in large part to big box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s Home Improvement and Menard’s — Ace has held its own.
“We focus primarily on the fix-it projects,” McGivern said. “If you’re remodeling your kitchen, you might not come to my store. Anything you need to fix in your kitchen we can help you with.”
Ace sells staple goods — it makes some 30,000 keys a year, and light bulbs are among its highest sellers -— but it also offers products that other stores don’t always carry.