Jim White: Boyne City's King of Hardware
By Kristi Kates | April 22, 2017
In this era of fast–paced everything, sticking with the same career for more than 50 years is almost unheard of, but that’s exactly what Boyne City’s Jim White has done in the hardware industry. It’s a career that caught him by surprise but that over five decades has become much like a bolt to a nut: It suits him exactly.
It’s summertime in Midland, Michigan, in the year 1965. Lyndon B. Johnson is president. The Vietnam War is at its mid point. Gas costs 30 cents per gallon, a loaf of bread costs 21 cents, you can get a ticket to the movies for a buck and Jim White, 15 going on 16, is watching all his school friends get jobs and decides he wants one, too. “I thought I’d go and be a stock boy at the dime store in downtown Midland,” he explained. White rode his bicycle four miles downtown to apply.
“I didn’t get the job,” he said. “I think it was because I was such a little guy at the time. But I was really deflated. I sat down on a bench – I still remember how that bench felt – and then thought, ‘Well, I’ll go down the street to the hardware store where my dad shops. Maybe I can get a job there.’”
White marched down the street and into the hardware store, right up to the proprietor, Mr. Campbell, to ask if he could be a stock boy. White recalled, “He said they’d never had a stock boy before. I said, ‘Well, I come in here with my dad all the time, and it’s pretty messy in here. I think I could tidy the place up.’” Campbell laughed and hired White on the spot. “I started at $1 an hour,” White said.
Working Class Boy
White worked 40 hours a week in the summer. Once school started, he worked after school a few days each week and one day on the weekends. He attended Delta Junior College in Saginaw, still working at the hardware store. Soon, he moved on to Michigan State, where he spent four years getting a degree in teaching and mathematics. While he was at MSU, the Midland hardware store came up for sale. White’s dad, Fred White, had worked at Dow Chemical all his life, but he’d become intrigued by the store where his son had worked so long. “So he bought it,” White said.
The younger White soon took a job teaching at a junior high school in Deckerville, Mich., but it wasn’t the fulfilling career he’d hoped for. “I’d always thought I wanted to be a math teacher,” White said, “but once I started, I really just didn’t like the school system. Unless other teachers retired or died, I realized I’d be stuck in the same job forever.”
After White had fulfilled his one–year teaching obligation, his dad invited him to return to Midland and join the hardware business with him, in the store White had worked in throughout his teen years. He quit teaching immediately.
“I went back to the hardware store, and about six months later, my dad was approached by a lady who owned an Ace Hardware in Boyne City,” White said. “She figured that since we were an Ace Hardware store, too, maybe my dad would buy her store. But he didn’t even know where Boyne City was, so at first he wasn’t interested. A little later, one of the guys he worked with told him he should buy it for tax reasons, so he did.”
The elder White needed someone to go Up North and run the Boyne City store for a year; his plan was to round up all the store’s stock, bring it back to the Midland store and then close the Boyne City store. “I told him I’d do it,” White said. “That was in 1974, and I was 25 years old.”
One year later, White had established a customer base Up North at the newly revitalized Boyne City Hardware and had increased the store’s profits. It was 1975. He liked the people. He liked the town. And he liked the fact that, as a young person, he could be his own boss and still make money. “When my dad found out, he was pretty proud, and that changed his plans,” White said. “I never went back to Midland.”
Learning by Layers
When he started as a 16–year–old stock boy, White didn’t know anything about the hardware industry. “I thought, I’ll never learn all this, it’s too complicated,” he said. “But a guy I worked with told me, ‘Just listen to the customers, they’ll teach you a lot. And ask your fellow employees – ask questions; that’s how you learn.’ So I figured out that you learn by layers. Now, after 50 years in the hardware business, people trust me and my knowledge.”
The hardware store business, to White, is unquestionably more challenging than teaching or any of the other career options he had back in the day. “It’s definitely more interesting than running, say, a grocery store,” he said. “There, all you have to do is say, ‘Why, yes, the tuna is in aisle five.’ Running a hardware store, you actually have to give people advice, so it’s very rewarding.”
Also rewarding to him is the fact that his Boyne City hardware business has become a family affair. His wife, Sharon, has worked alongside him for 35 years; 32–year–old daughter Jessica recently joined White in helping run the store. “I also enjoy working with my staff. Many work for us for 20 to 30 years before they retire,” White said.
The Ace Hardware company, Boyne City Hardware’s affiliate, appreciates White, too. Last October, he was awarded the Estwing Golden Hammer, a large brass–plated hammer, to honor his 50 years in the hardware industry. “I thought someone might try to steal it because it does really look like gold, but no one has yet,” White joked.
White’s staffers frequently mention White’s personality and “big heart.” Employee Chuck Stutzman also appreciates White’s sense of humor. “He’s real personable, and he’s a jokester, too,” Stutzman said with a chuckle. “He likes to pull jokes on people. Just a few days ago, he dug out some junky old vacuum cleaner and left it as a ‘gift’ on the porch of one of our employees. But mostly, people seek Jim out for his knowledge. He’s very adept at everything hardware and everything he sells. Plus, he has an excellent memory – there are a lot of things in here, and I mean a lot, and he knows where every last little thing is.”
“We sell over 15,000 items,” White confirmed proudly.
Pam Crumpler has worked at Boyne City Hardware for the past eight years. She agreed that part of the appeal of the job is simply being around White. “Being friendly is his top priority,” she said. “He wants us to greet customers right away. Plus, he’s a very kind–hearted person; he’s so good to his employees.”
Back to that sense of humor: Each year, Boyne City Hardware enters a float in the Boyne City 4th of July parade. Last year, White reportedly outdid himself. “He dressed up as that musician Prince on a big motorcycle,” Crumpler said with a laugh. “We were all on the float with him, all dressed up like Prince’s entourage, and we won first place. That kind of thing is why this is such a good working environment – it’s fun here! People come in and ask for Jim, and if he’s not in, they’ll come back because they specifically want to see him.”
People always need something to fix their hardware problems, White said, and it’s his store’s job to be their solutions center. That’s what really makes him tick. “I’ve put some thought into what I enjoy most about being in the hardware business,” White said. “I enjoy helping customers who need advice to solve their problems. I listen to them, then recommend what they need to buy and how to complete their project. I’ve been doing this since I was 16, so giving advice is my strength, and most customers appreciate it. Plus, it’s just a joy working in this environment – there was a big Ace Hardware executive guy here a while back for a golf tournament. He came in to visit our store, and I overheard him say, ‘Man, I love this store. We can’t make a new Ace like this; this place just feels like a hardware store.’ I felt so great when I heard him say that.”
After five decades, how much longer does White plan to continue as Boyne City’s king of hardware? “Well, I’ve basically got my daughter running the place now,” White said. “But I still don’t really have any incentive to stop working. We’re always getting new stuff in, so it’s a fun place to shop. We’re a small store that does a lot of business. And I like seeing our employees and seeing our customers and giving out all that advice to people…I went to Florida for a week on vacation, and I was just bored.”
Jim White’s Boyne City Hardware is located at 200 Water Street in downtown Boyne City. For more information, visit boynecityhardware.com or call (231) 582-6532.
Jim White’s Hardware Time Capsule
The Hardware Store of 1965:
“Weber charcoal grills were the top seller. And back then, screws, nuts and bolts were sold one at a time but nails were kept in these 50–pound bins and sold in sacks, by the pound. We also sold lots and lots of drywall nails; drywall screws didn’t exist yet.”
“You’d never find candy at a hardware store in the ‘60s, but now you can buy candy, granola bars and pop at every register.”
“Back then, trash cans, gas cans, plumbing pipes and fittings and electric boxes were all made of metal. And drain pipes were cast iron – those were in every house built before 1960. Now all of these things are made of plastic.”
“We used to sell asbestos paper off of a big roll as a fireproofing material; it’s now illegal to sell anything with asbestos in it!”
The Hardware Store of 2017
“The top selling items today are Weber gas grills!”
“Strangely, we still sell screws, nuts and bolts one at a time, the exact same way. But today, nails are sold in pre–packaged cardboard pound boxes.”
“I never thought I’d see the day, but we sell a line of organic bamboo underwear. Underwear! In a hardware store! It’s called Boody, and I have to admit it’s a huge success.”
“Some common items we sell now that we didn’t sell 50 years ago are smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and food processors.”