Walking into the Burns Lake Home Hardware last Saturday afternoon, local resident Garth Schienbein was looking for a part for his RV water pump.
Jack Brown was paying a visit to the hardware store his family has owned now for three generations, or 87 years of continual service in Burns Lake. He noticed Schienbein, and walked over to see if he could help him find what he was looking for.
After realizing the specialized part wasn’t available, Jack asked Schienbein to wait a moment while he ran home to see if he had the part somewhere in his garage.
“Jack doesn’t do retired very well,” said Schienbein. “He’s always been this way.”
The Home Hardware on the corner of Centre St. and Hwy. 16 has been there for 87 years. Jack Brown is the second generation of Browns to own the store. His father, Jack S. Brown established it with partners in the 1920s. Now, Jack’s son Greg runs the day-to-day store operations.
It wasn’t always a Home Hardware. It started out as the Burns Lake Hardware Store, became a Marshall- Wells Hardware store, a Macleod’s Hardware store, and then finally a Home Hardware franchise in 1985.
Every business decision the Brown family has made concerning the stores affiliation has been determined by how they understood Burns Lake.
“We left Macleod’s when they went down the superstore route, similar to the Walmart philosophy of piling everything up and selling it cheap,” Jack explained. “That’s okay in the city, but in small markets it doesn’t do you any good. We don’t have the volume of traffic you would need to run a discount style store.”
By joining Home Hardware, the Browns were able to cut out the middle man.
“Home Hardware is dealer-owned buying group,” Jack explained. “The wholesale end of it works just to break even. There’s no middle-man mark up.”
By eliminating the extra profit margin a normal wholesale supplier would be looking for, the Burns Lake Home Hardware is able to stay reasonably competitive in a market where big box stores in Prince George draw local shoppers away.
“People like to shop out of town, especially when you have something else to do in the city,” Jack said. “It’s just a fact of life.”
“But for many things when you figure out your true cost of going to Prince George just to shop – the cost of travel, and wear-and-tear on your vehicle – there’s no great savings.”
“Sometimes you just don’t have the choice of things here that you have in Prince George,” Jack added. “When I go to Prince George for another reason, I’ll do some shopping.”
There was a time when an automotive garage and dealership operated out of the location.
“There used to be a garage and a GM dealership here, in the back half of the store,” Jack said. “Up where the bottle depot is now used to be the car lot.”
“It was a four-line dealership,” Jack said. “The only car they didn’t sell here was the Cadillac line.”
The Browns got out of the auto dealership business in 1982, selling the dealership business to a buyer from Vancouver.
But the dealership suffered from an inability to understand the local market.
“They could have brought in more just off-lease cars and sold them at a discount,” he explained. “Instead, they thought everybody should have the fanciest cars and the fanciest pick-ups. He could have done very well if he would have just sold the cars people wanted.”
With the end of the garage and the dealership in the middle 1980s, Jack expanded the hardware store to the dimensions we now see when we go inside.
“We used to have a furniture showroom back here, but eventually the demand for hardware meant we expanded it into the whole store.”
“Burns Lake is fortunate to have as a large a hardware store as this one to serve its population,” Jack said. “We’ve kept putting back into the business to grow it to the size it is now.”
Community involvement has been a big part of Home Hardware’s presence in Burns Lake. Jack is a Burns Lake Rotary member, member of the Burns Lake Community Foundation, and has served in many different volunteer capacities in town.
“My father was a [volunteer] member of the board of directors during the construction of the first hospital in Burns Lake, and now I sit on the current board for the new hospital project.”
First-rate service, knowing your market, re-investing locally, and being a strong community supporter are some of the main ingredients for a successful 87 years in Burns Lake.