Talking Shop with Fred Elias, owner of Elias Ace Hardware

Monday, March 28, 2011
Fred Elias is owner of Elias Ace Hardware in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Fred Elias was born into the hardware business and growing up never considered anything but following in his father and grandfather's footsteps. Now that spring is here, he's gearing up for the busiest time of the year at Elias Ace Hardware in Cape Girardeau.

Question: Tell the story of how your family's retail businesses evolved over the years.

Answer: My grandfather came over from Lebanon. He was in the grocery business and during World War II sold out to Kroger. When he came back from the war, he opened a group of dollar stores. They had a Little Big Dollar Store in Cape Girardeau, Paducah, Ky., Mayfield, Ill., Anna, Ill., and Sikeston, Mo., and more that were franchised. There were about 35 of them all together. Elias Family Center opened in 1965 in Cairo, Ill., and they started closing the dollar stores because that store was doing so well. We were TruValue back then. There were three brothers in the business including my dad. In 1988 and 1989, I bought out two of my uncles. We opened our Cape Girardeau location in 2000 and operated both stores for a time. Basically, with economical conditions [in Cairo], we finally had to close the doors in 2005. We sold off everything inside and sold the building. The Cape Girardau store was built brand new from the ground up.

Q: What was it like growing up in the family business?

A: When they opened in 1965 they had all my cousins on the floor pricing merchandise as they were putting up the shelves. By the time I was a teenager, I was ordering merchandise. I took care of the sporting goods section. It really was a family business. You learn work to earn a living. It's just not handed to you. It doesn't always come easy. You find out where the dollar actually comes from is hard work.

Q: Did you ever think of taking a different career path?

A: No. It just seemed to fit.

Q: Does any of your family work at Elias Ace Hardware with you now?

A: My wife, both sisters-in-law and one nephew. The confidence you have in your family is important. They all work well. My children did work here through high school and college, but they don't anymore. Now they live in St. Louis.

Q: How has the hardware business evolved during your career?

A: Computerization is one big change. Advertising is completely different. You have national advertising that leads the way of what you're advertising. Before, you would just pick the items out and print an ad. Now, six months in advance you know what's going to be on sale.

Q: How is shopping in a smaller, family-owned store like yours different from shopping at a large national chain hardware store?

A: Ace's motto now is get in, get what you need and get on with your life. Everyone that walks in the door usually has a problem. You're trying to fix it for them. It doesn't take as much time, and we help you out. You don't spend two or three hours looking for one or two items. You spend five minutes and you're back home. This is set up as a neighborhood format. Seventy-five to 80 percent of my customers are within two or three miles of the store.

Q: How have the products you carry at your store changed over the years?

A: The big barbecue grills we sell now; I never thought I would sell a $1,500 barbecue grill. We just brought in the Stihl line of trimmers, blowers and chainsaws. Ace and Sears just made a deal. We have 600 items of Craftsmen now. Both of those have been important lines to us and we've picked up a lot of sales.

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