An entire species on the verge of extinction in the Illawarra

By , 25/04/2020 19:39

When René Tummers closes his hardware store at Fairy Meadow, regulars will mourn more than one shop. There’s an entire species on the verge of extinction. CAN’T WIN: (Left) René Tummers is selling off the last of his stock at the Fairy Meadow Hardex store. Picture: SILVIA LIBER
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Take a walk down Wentworth Street in Port Kembla, and let’s go back in time, down to Gino Chiodo’s hardware store,in the year 1987.

It’s a family affair, with wife Rosa andthe younger generation helping out behind the counter and the shelves. Their matching T-shirts proudly proclaim the store’s name, in the kind of typeface you’d only find in1987.

Previously Dwyer’s, it’sthe oldest hardware store in the Illawarra, say those who should know. The Chiodo clan iscelebrating its second anniversary there.Gino’s people skills havelanded the former electrical engineer in a good spot. Maybe it was meant tobe:Chiodo is Italian for“nail”.

Weekender this week.

“My motto was, ‘smile with the service’.

“The best thing was serving the people. We liked the personal service. they come and ask you questions, I’d help with my knowledge, people were happy with that. They buy things, not buy things, doesn’t matter.”

A PAINTER’S EYE: Gino Chiodo setting up one of his special window displays at the family’s Port Kembla hardware store.

Gino’s did wellfor 10 years. But as the steelworks cut its workforce, the local economy softened andso too did sales. Local steel fabrication shops which Gino’s store supplied went out of business in the downturn. King St became the main road, bypassing Wentworth St. And down in Warrawong there sprung up a gigantic green box, with a sign that said Bunnings.

Now let’s go north, along Springhill Rd, turning only to get to Fairy Meadow. Along the way we’ll fast-forward to March 2018, and René Tummers is about to close his Hardex store on the Princes Hwy.

After surviving a threatened Masters store down the road, and outliving another major in Corrimal, René has found the new Bunnings at Bellambi has simply sucked his business away –50 per cent in the first few days, he said. This later adjusted back down but he still estimates a drop of 30-40 per cent. He was never going to fight it –René knows the numbers too well.

If this story opened with a bout of nostalgia, it’s because in the Illawarra, as in many other areas, generations may soon grow up having neverknown a hardware store that is not Bunnings –the look, the feel and the smell of it.The closure of Hardexleaves Bulli’s Home hardware store as the onlynon-Bunnings hardware between Unanderra and Helensburgh.

“There used to be one in practically every suburb, where people went and got their lumber, nails, whatever,” René said. “I could probably count eleven hardware stores in the Illawarra that have all closed as a result of this phenomenon, which is big box hardware. You do worry about where it’s going to end up.”

TIMES CHANGE: (Above) Pam Jansen, Ron Farrington, Kay Farrington, Lee James and Rita Farrington were the last of the Jackson family to own the Thirroul hardware store.

Unanderra’s Hardware Man is still going strong. Further south, there’s aMitre 10 at Oak Flats, but itwill soon have a Bunnings just 100m away in the old Masters store.

In 2018 hardware is not an ordinary market. Any aspirants must share the spacewith an 800-pound gorilla, one which boasts more than 350 stores and revenue for 2017 of $11.5 billion. The claim is often heard thatBunnings has a 20 per cent share of the hardware market in – but it seems this could only be true if all construction supplies are included,from DIY to building a skyscraper.

In this game, size matters. It allows giants to demand discounting from suppliers in the same way the major supermarkets do –power smaller operators simply cannot wield.Bunnings also manages to get concessions on planning regulations, as happened at Bellambi under the eye of Wollongong City Council.

ALL ABOUT PEOPLE: (Below) Gino Chiodo has a look through his collection of photos from the days of Gino’s Hardware. Picture: ADAM McLEAN.

And with the demise of Masters, Bunnings has even lost its heavyweightcompetitor –and is completing the sweep by moving into some of Masters’ old stores.

Of course Bunnings (and its parent, Wesfarmers) can’t be blamed for succeeding.Bunnings itselfwas once a small sawmill, bought by the Bunning brothers in Perth in 1886. Now the chainclaims to employ more than 40,000 people in and New Zealand, and says 80 per cent of these are permanents.

People are free to choose where they shop and a great many of them choose Bunnings. Itdelivers what many want at a price they can handle with a nursery and outdoor section attached. Carrying the company’s logo on your umbrella or your kid’s wrist is entirely commonplace, and thenthere’s the sausage sizzle, the kids’ playground and the empty cafe.

ART GALLERY: Another of the window displays Gino Chiodo loved to make.

For many, this is the hardware experience in 2018 . Will Bunnings soon become a metonym for hardware, as Kleenex was for tissues? Perhaps it is already. And while its success is good for those involved, what is the cost?

Let’s go further north, to Lawrence Hargrave Drive in Thirroul. See those hipster cafes, boutiquesand trendy active wear stores? That’s where for 60 years you could see people coming and going fromJackson’s hardware store.

This was an old-school operation, where the customer before you will finish his chat before you will get served.A certain kind of manners. Jackson’s was independent in the sense few hardware stores are – having stayed intact through all the name-changes that saw Magnet Mart, Hardwarehouse, BBC and the rest come, and go.

PERSONAL: A customer picking a bargain in the last days of Hardex Fairy Meadow.

Owner Ron Farrington had conceded he was unable to compete with Bunnings on the sheer range of products, so had to compete on personal service instead. And after 40 years working there, he decided it was “time” for something else. The building was sold and Mr Farrington and his family moved on; lifestyle stores moved in.

Perhaps its distance from Wollongong – until last October, the site of the closest Bunnings –helped Jackson’s stickaround so long. And perhaps Home at Bulli may benefit from being just a little bit further north.

We’ll see. The cities and suburbs that we, through our consumption choices, are helping to build, are ridding themselvesof hardware stores. These become warehouses, where the customer does the work,in industrial parks on the margins of town, where all essential items seem to congregate, leaving the main streets for “discretionary spending” and cafes.

No hardware stores has a divine right to succeed. And some owners aren’t people people. But they know their stuff, and they won’t stop looking until they find you an answer. If their days are in fact numbered, we may not yet realise the size of hole they will leave in our towns.

Postscript: Agro, the talking cockatoo atHardex Fairy Meadow, famous for disturbing some thieves at the store many years ago, has found a new home in a large aviary ata school in the Blue Mountains.

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