Jim's Hardware is expanding after 26 years
June 25, 2008 · Updated 6:34 PM
"Photo: Chatting and laughing with customers is all part of a day's work for Jim Harwell. Here he greets Steve Gutzmer, left, as they stand in front of the entrance to the store's new addition.Jim Larsen/staff photoJim's Hardware, the one place in Clinton where you can get almost anything you want, is expanding after 26 years of operation.Owner Jim Harwell has taken over adjoining floor space occupied for many years by a drug store. He's adding 2,000 square feet to the 2,500 square feet that he has always had.Finding Harwell in a store overflowing with hardware, kitchen supplies, sporting goods and a plethora of other items isn't always easy. One recent day during lunch his long-time clerk Winnie Wheeler reluctantly gave away his position. I suggested he hide so he can eat lunch and people don't ferret him out, Wheeler said as she was helping a customer.A search turned up Harwell standing in the nuts and bolts aisle of his new addition, eating a sandwich and waiting for eight pallets of additional goods to be delivered. We've got one of the most complete assortments of anchors and fasteners on the island, Harwell said. We're the Home Depot of Whidbey Island.Harwell can hardly utter a sentence without adding a dose of dry humor or comedic commentary. Hundreds of friends think of items they barely need just so they can stop by and see him under the pretense of buying something.Harwell's store has been the focal point of his life since he opened it in 1974, right after Knaplund Hardware closed. He had worked for Knaplund for four years prior to going into business for himself.Harwell met his wife Mary in the store. She had come from Green Bay, Wisconsin to visit her mother, Val Nichols, and happened into Jim's Hardware. She walked in and I was a marked man, he said. But Mary never worked at the store. I'm the boss down here and she's the boss at home, he explained.Eventually the Harwells had three children, Kathy, Gen and Jimmy, who are now all grown. Kathy works at Whidbey Telephone and Gen and Jimmy are in college. As kids, they spent much of their early years in the store and inadvertently helped Harwell find his long-time employee, Wheeler.She came in and the kids were rollerblading in the aisles, Harwell said. One of them almost ran her down.Somehow that encounter led to a job for the spunky Wheeler, a senior citizen who, when not helping customers, trades barbs with her boss. Here's a typical exchange:Harwell (giving a tour of the new addition): And here's the break room with a microwave.Wheeler (happening by): He doesn't give breaks! Who's he kidding?Harwell: It's for my breaks, not yours.When Wheeler is safely out of earshot Harwell fondly adds, She's tough, she's loyal, and she's part of the family.Wheeler turns 75 this month, but says she may work until she's 80. It's fun. It's my social life, she said.The store's new addition has amenities such as a break room and office that Harwell has never before enjoyed, but the expansion was made for competitive reasons. While he jokes about Home Depot and other mainland megastores, he also worries about losing customers to them. So he made the difficult decision to expand. While other mom and pops are closing I'm expanding, he said. I'm doing everything on a shoestring. It costs a lot of money to expand.But his customers will have more of everything to keep them shopping in Clinton, as well as new attractions such as lighting fixtures and window treatments.Harwell knows that additions alone won't keep his store thriving. The main thing he sells is service. You've got to have service or you can't compete, he said. That's why he offers fishing and hunting licenses, UPS service, screen repairs, glass cutting, and other necessities that the big stores don't bother with. I'll do anything that's not illegal or immoral, Harwell said. You can't fix a screen at Home Depot.The grand opening for the new addition will be May 13. I'm going to have a sale, which I haven't had in years, he said.Sale prices might bring a few people in to Jim's Hardware, but as always the main attraction will be the owner himself."