BAIRD — In buying a historic, small-town hardware store, Jessica and James Gilbert also acquired a time capsule.
“We really love downtown Baird. We wanted it to continue to be a hardware store. It’s just really got a lot of history to it,” Jessica Gilbert said.
The Gilberts took ownership July 1 of White Auto and Home at 219 Market St. from Mike Konczak. The store had been in the Konczak family since 1946, she said, “and is a blast from the past.”
The White Auto Store sign on the front awning points to the building’s previous life as an automotive parts store franchise.
With new ownership comes a new name: Gilbert & Son Hardware. The son refers to 10-year-old Judd. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.
“We’d like to keep kind of the charm of the old kind of hardware store and update some of the products that we offer and expand,” Jessica Gilbert said. “But right now, we’re just trying to dust and figure out what we’ve got.”
With 3,000 square feet of space with selves, bins and cases of hardware, plumbing and electrical supplies, auto parts, home goods, fishing tackle and other products, the process is taking time.
Hidden vintage items
The couple are finding treasures in dust-covered, tucked-away boxes as they inventory the store, the back storage area and the next-door building that also was part of the deal.
James Gilbert is going “through shelf by shelf, working my way down trying to figure out what we have,” he said.
Among the many items crammed in the next-door building that once was the Purple Onion café are an Oriole stove, gas floor heaters, hand-crank laundry wringer and a couple of small boat motors.
Jessica Gilbert posts photographs of some of the surprising and interesting products on the store’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. Included in the oddities: a case of Ortho Leaf Polish, which could be sprayed on the hard-surface leaves of ivy, rubber and other plants to make them shiny and easier to dust.
The presence of some vintage products makes sense, such as a 1933-35 Chevrolet radiator cap repair kit, metal cans of grease, chrome-plated Richlite muffler exhaust extensions and older styles of Stanley screwdrivers.
“Some people like the old tools because they’re American made,” Jessica Gilbert said.
Vintage toys and an unassembled tricycle that James Gilbert guesses dates to the 1960s are a remnant of the time when previous owners carried children’s Christmas gifts and offered layaways, his wife said.
The most unusual child’s item may be a case of toy electric irons that warmed when turned on.
“I’d be afraid to plug it in,” James Gilbert said as he held one of the child-sized irons the size of his hand.
The checkout counter consists of two glass display cases with jewelry and knifes, and a few guitars and swords hang on the wall behind the counters. Those are remnants of the store’s life as a pawn shop as well, he said.
A small town necessity
The seemingly eclectic mix of products – fishing supplies on an endcap a few feet from the shelf with home canning supplies that is not too far from the key-making station – shows a hardware store is the “backbone of the town,” Jessica Gilbert said.
“It’s just got a little bit of everything. When your sink breaks you can just run in and get what you need,” she said.
The store represents community too, her husband said. They already have “their regulars,” or a few locals who come into the store to chat.
“There’s been folks coming here on wheelchairs that live a few blocks away,” James Gilbert said.
Others have driven in from their rural residences miles away on an emergency run for parts to make home repairs. While Clyde and Abilene are a few miles to the west of Baird, hardware stores are absent for miles to the south, north and east.
A recent customer who lives on a ranch drove 15 miles to the store to buy a water heater connecting line. A trip to Abilene would have taken even longer, James Gilbert said.
The Gilberts grew up around small towns, including Cross Plains.
“When I was younger, in that small town we lived in we had a hardware store, something like this,” James Gilbert said.
His father was handy in plumbing and other trades and built the family home, he said.
Now, the Gilberts are forging a legacy in Baird that started when they bought a downtown building in 2017 and renovated it. Darner’s Pizza Co. rents the space.
“I love old buildings, and I’ve always wanted to restore one. That’s why we did the one that’s now Darner’s Pizza,” Jessica said.
Residents have welcomed the hardware store’s potential new future, the Gilberts said.
“Everybody seems to be really positive and hope that we can make a living off of it so we can make it work,” Jessica Gilbert said.
The Gilberts’ vision for the store is to first fix up the building, which has stone block walls that may date to the late 1880s or 1890s.
They suspect the building was erected only a few years after a devastating downtown fire in the mid-1880s.
Contractors are in the process of scrapping away layers of old, cracked paint on the store’s doors, window trims and exterior to add a new coat. Replacing the roof is the next priority.
“It’s got some leaks, so we don’t want to do any interior repairs until we get that done,” Jessica Gilbert said.
Also on the wish list: “Air conditioning would be nice,” she said.
As they progress through the store, the couple is figuring how to display products to make shopping easier along the long aisles that run from the front to the back of the store.
Updates to the merchandise may include a hunting section and some camping supplies, Jessica Gilbert said.
In the next-door space, “we plan on doing a hallway of memorabilia and old things, so people can come through and not just shop but also kind of look through things,” she said.
By revitalizing the business while honoring its past, the Gilberts are investing in their town.
“Just keeping things local is really important because we’re in a time where nobody knows their neighbors and it’s nice to have a bit of community,” she said.
“I do think it’s important to have that sense of the community.”
Laura Gutschke is a general assignment reporter and food columnist and manages online content for the Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.