Kendall’s Ace Hardware in St. Paul handing off to next generation

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With little more than a high school education, Kendall Crosby bought his first hardware store on St. Paul’s Dale Street in 1992, followed in 2005 by a second shop at Payne and Maryland avenues that had been run by Bill and Gladys Godwin, near-legends among the neighborhood locals.

A Ramsey County turn-lane project proved to be an unlikely boon, inspiring city officials to help Crosby relocate the latter down the street to a long-vacant municipal lot at the corner of Payne and Phalen Boulevard in 2012. The corner needed an anchor, and the business corridor needed a boost.

Customers followed. A decade after that fateful move, Kendall’s Ace Hardware on Payne was invited to Las Vegas in January to celebrate the national cooperative’s top performers.

Crosby, sporting a sprawling white beard, signature tie-dye T-shirt and equally signature cowboy hat, features prominently in the chain’s congratulatory video for “Coolest Hardware Store of 2023,” but he didn’t bother to show up to Sin City in person.

“I sit in the basement,” quipped Crosby, who has been spending his summers at a cabin and describes himself these days as more of a bookkeeper than a salesman. “I’ve got a shirt that says, ‘When’s lunch?’”

Next generation

Instead, with an eye toward retirement, he sent the next generation of Kendall’s Ace Hardware proprietors to Vegas in his place.

Ashley and Matt Lloyd, joined by Cleo the German Shepard, at the counter of Kendall’s Ace Hardware on Rice Street in St. Paul on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. The husband and wife will be taking over the longtime St. Paul store from Ashley’s father, Kendall Crosby, who will retire in early 2024. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

On Jan. 1, 2024, he hopes to hand over the store keys, metaphorically speaking, to two longtime top managers — his daughter Ashley and her husband, fourth-generation East Sider Matt Lloyd. The changing of the guard will cap Crosby’s more than 30 years in the business.

“I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,” said Crosby, who but for the pandemic probably would have made 2022 his last year of balancing books and ordering box nails.

And what he accomplished as a commercial anchor in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city came as some surprise to observers, including himself.

The Payne Avenue location is known as much for its outgoing customer service as its two cats, the Lloyd family’s popular German shepherd named Cleo, a popcorn stand, a classic phone booth that actually works and somewhat tongue-in-cheek window displays, until recently prepared by Crosby’s wife, Alexandra. It’s gained “Pinnacle” status within the Illinois-based Ace Hardware cooperative as one of a few hundred top sellers among some 5,300 shops nationwide.

The average hardware store, said Crosby, sells $150 of product per square foot. Ace stores tend to sell $200 to $250 per square foot.

On Payne Avenue, an immigrant business corridor known for its diversity but not for its deep pockets, “right now we’re running $485 a square foot,” Crosby said.

Cornering the market

With no other hardware shops on St. Paul’s East Side, a certain exclusivity has helped, as have a few key customer service strategies. Among them, said Crosby, is constant inventory management. Always keep product on the shelf. A depleted shelf or near-empty hook doesn’t signal to customers healthy sales — it advertises a lack of options, and a reason to shop somewhere else.

“If it’s an empty hook, the customer can’t buy it,” Crosby said. “You don’t just lose the sale, you lose the couple other things they would have bought with it. You lose the pipe wrench and the Teflon tape, too. … Anyone can sell hot dogs, but try going to the State Fair to sell 100,000. It isn’t that easy.”

Another strategy?

“Being friendly — that was my dad’s number one thing,” Ashley Lloyd said. “Being friendly goes a long way. A lot of places you go to nowadays, you’re lucky to get greeted.”

There are five Ace Hardware stores in Minneapolis, but no other Ace Hardware shops operate in all of St. Paul, following the sale in 2021 of the Frattalone family’s metro-wide Hardware and Garden chain — which maintains two former Ace Hardware shops on Grand Avenue — to the Central Network Retail Group of Tennessee. In fact, beyond Kendall’s and Frattalone’s, there are few other hardware stores in St. Paul, period.

The closest stores to Crosby’s Payne Avenue location are Do It Best Hardware at Rice Street and Jessamine Avenue in the city’s North End, as well as his original store on Dale Street.

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