Chain stores, rising expenses doom Otto's Hardware

Former customers and employees lament the passing of a congenial neighborhood business.

By Traci Rader, Times Correspondent
Published March 7, 2008


As friends, customers, neighbors and auction buffs filed in to look over the remaining items at Otto's Hardware, employees fought back tears.

Everyone knew this day would come eventually. The independent hardware store on U.S. 301 near Gibsonton Drive had been battling nearby big-box stores for years. Soon, the auctioneer's barking would end and the store would fall silent for good.

Owner Kim Otto closed his store Feb. 29 and turned over his inventory to an auctioneer.

John Harris, a real estate agent who has been in Brandon for 20 years, said it was sad to see the demise of a store that helped the neighborhood grow up.

"Unfortunately, there's no way around big business. Twenty years ago, this place was so busy on the weekends, you couldn't get in here," Harris said.

Otto's had felt increasing pressure from competitors and rising costs in the past three years. Home Depot and Lowe's have stores close by, and taxes and insurance spiked. Otto soon found that he was barely breaking even.

"Once they put the Super Wal-Mart in down the road, it really hurt," he said.

Paul Burraughes, 68, of Riverview was an Otto's customer for 15 years.

"These guys always had all the information you needed. They were all good people and very helpful. It's a shame that these discount stores take the mom- and-pop stores out," Burraughes said.

For customer Bill Mack, the lure was simple.

"They had unusual things like pipe-threaders - stuff you can't buy at Home Depot," he said.

Chris Beall worked at Otto's since he finished high school six years ago.

"The great memories, knowledge and work ethics I've acquired here can never be replaced. It wasn't a million-dollar job, but money isn't everything," said Beall, who found a new job at a gas company.

Otto will work for his brother at the propane business next door. The hardware store will soon become a Latin grocery store.

"Those 26 years in business, Otto's did good and I'm thankful," he said. "I was on a first-name basis with my steady customers. They were like family. Everyone (in my family) is scared of what the future will bring, but we have faith in God."

Others, like 20-year employee Jean Campion, have yet to find another job.

Most of the chain stores offer only part-time work and no medical benefits. Wherever she lands, there won't be Peepers the duck, which used to greet visitors at the door. At a new job, she probably won't have the chance to rescue a possum or cat and nurse it back to health while making it part of the store's family.

"God gives us our somedays, and this is my someday. It's hard," she said, watching the auction.