Drive past the one-story sky-blue facade of Utzinger's True Value Hardware and you might miss it.

It looks like your average roadside hardware store.

The American flag is always hanging out front and a wild menagerie of posters and merchandise hangings adorn the insides of the tall front windows.

But inside...

Anything you need, you'll find inside - everything to survive the apocalypse, except Twinkies.

Grover Utzinger occupies the unassuming-looking True Value franchise along U.S. Highway 101 Business in Astoria. But open the door and you'll find one of the largest local collections of do-it-yourself materials ever assembled in one building.

It has been gathered from more than 37 years of responding to customers' needs.

"Every time the customer asked for something and we didn't have it, we'd try to get it," says the 84-year-old. "That's how we built up the inventory.

"It's the satisfaction that when they leave, we've helped them with their problems and their needs."

With his own system of cataloging merchandise, Utzinger offers few guesses as to how many items he has throughout the store.

"A bolt's a bolt, but there's 10 different kinds," says Utzinger. He actually stocks hundreds of different types, metric and imperial - "100,000. I don't know. I honestly have no idea.

"I couldn't put a number on it, because it's not inventoried per item."

Utzinger's includes 11 indistinct departments, running the gamut from housewares, automotive and plumbing to small appliances, sporting goods and paint.

Each department, unmarked of course, includes thousands of distinct items - septic tanks and candy bars to shotgun shells and and shop vacuums. Utzinger said some of his unusual items are holdovers from bygone times. He still sells draw knives, a traditional woodworking tool, and a brace and bit, the hand-cranked drill and screwdriver.

Singing its praises

Regular customers like Howard Clarke of Astoria form a kind of fan base.

"You find yourself on Sunday afternoon at 3:30 needing a coal scuttle," said Clarke, who has been patronizing Utzinger's for more than 30 years. "Nobody actually uses one, but I saw one in there one time."

The store's original counters stood about 3 feet tall, until Utzinger started stretching them upward, adding more shelving throughout the entire store. Walk down one of those aisles and you'll see boxes and merchandise stacked above your head, overhead cupboards below those, with hooks on the front holding up still more merchandise. Inside the cupboards is more stuff, further divided by shelves and hooks.

"They carry everything except building supplies," says Christopher Paddon, who goes in search of things at Utzinger's regularly for projects at home and at the Titanic Lifeboat Academy. "They'll bend over backward to help you solve a problem or find what you need."

Below the cupboards sit still more racks, shelves and counters, divided into small rectangles each with something specific a DIY practitioner might need. From above, arms reach to the tread of your shoes, every space is used.

"I wouldn't say our selection is so massive - it's diversified," says Utzinger. "Home Depot is more massive than us. God, what I could do with that store - fill it up."

As it stands, he's never tried to expand his store. At least not outside its walls.

The brain bank

Betty Tygart of Astoria walks in the front door of Utzinger's and up to Bonnie Hellberg, who has worked at the store since it opened Jan. 1, 1975.

"I need the kind of oil that you put in your weed eater," says Tygart, who wants to take advantage of the sunny day. Utzinger's keeps more than 15 types of oil in stock, for anything from cars to a chain saws.

Hellberg disappears into one of the narrow alleys and returns with a small bottle of 2-cycle oil for yard equipment.

"For a newcomer it would be terrible," says Hellberg about knowing what's what. "I would say it'd take a month" to figure out where some things are.

"I just asked questions: What is it used for? What does it look like? Can you draw me a picture?"

She and Utzinger have their own system for keeping track of everything in the store, even while not knowing exactly how much there is.

"You have to put it in the ‘brain bank,' whether we need it or not," says Utzinger. "A guy brings up a heat gun. I know we have one left, but I want to keep two."

Up until 10 years ago, he and his employees filled out paper sheets every week to order whatever was running low. Then came a computer from True Value Hardware listing even more items than he can fit in his store, ready to order more of by a few clicks. Then the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife sent another to monitor the fishing and hunting tags he sells.

Despite this, Utzinger says he and the other employees depend 90 percent on the brain bank.

Throughout his 37 years of ownership, Hellberg says, the store has had fewer than 10 employees. She has always been there with Utzinger, and his one other employee Julie "Julz" Niemi has worked there about eight to 10 years.

"It's hard to break in new employees that are trustworthy," says Hellberg. "That's the No. 1 thing: trustworthy."

Unassuming

Utzinger, who sold upward five other businesses around Astoria before buying the Coast to Coast hardware store franchise for $40,000, doesn't like to go into his past - unless it's about his hardware store.

Henry Raasina originally opened the store in the mid-1940s, and operated it for more than a quarter-century.

"There was a lot of locals that tried to buy it, but he refused," says Utzinger. Raasina eventually sold the franchise to Coast to Coast, which in October 1974 sent a representative to interview Utzinger, one of the suitors for the store.

After securing it, he opened Jan. 2, 1975.

"It was dead," he says. "We took in $75. The fixtures were all the same. It had probably one-quarter of the inventory."

During the next 10 years, Utzinger said, his business quadrupled sales. As customers came in asking for materials to complete their home projects, he obliged, searched out whatever it was that they needed, ordering it and adding more storage space.

"We just kept building up," says Utzinger. "We couldn't go down; we'd hit water."

Owning other businesses, he often found himself fixing issues at his various businesses. The experience of going to a hardware store excited him so much, he took it a step further.

"It was the attitude and the congeniality of our customers," says Utzinger about why he got into the hardware business.

The future

Utzinger shuns moving toward more futuristic scanning devices, opting for stickers on the bottom of every box and a vast knowledge of the inventory.

Although his business grew substantially for a while, the onslaught of big-box stores in neighboring Warrenton has, like with so many other small businesses, hurt him.

"When I first bought the store, there was not one business across that bridge," says Utzinger. He won't name the businesses, not wanting to badmouth the competition.

"We'll hang in there. I'll put Bonnie and Julie on unemployment and stand behind the counter," he jokes.

He doesn't see himself expanding the inventory much, other than small stuff that customers ask for.

And don't expect him to leave the store any time soon.

"Bonnie says I'll have to do 20 more years," says the 84-year-old Utzinger. "I have my retirement spot already picked out over at Ocean View" Cemetery...

 

  

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