Walking through the doors of the Ace Electric True Value hardware store in downtown Hoquiam, is like walking through a time warp.
This is your father’s hardware store — a classic throwback to the days when stores like this were a staple of Main Street America.
Kellie Nordberg likes it that way.
Having worked in the store for 22 years, not much has changed — other than the merchandise — since her first day on the job in 1990. And she’s pretty certain a whole lot hasn’t changed since the store opened in the same location in the late 1950s.
“It’s pretty much the same — a few different aisles, maybe, but other than that it’s not a whole lot different. People like that. They don’t like the change,” said Nordberg, who’s been managing the store for the past six years.
It’s a stereotypical mom-and-pop hardware store. The longtime owners are Chuck and Gwen Tjernberg.
There’s everything in the store — everything from basic nuts and bolts to large appliances, fishing supplies, tools, fans, heaters, plants and garden supplies, pet supplies, camping gear, coffee makers and replacement pots, Radio Flyer wagons, cleaning supplies, clocks — even snow sleds and saucers. Everything, including the kitchen sink — in several styles.
And a stroll through the store reveals prices that are quite similar to the big-box stores.
“I think we’re pretty competitive and I try to watch that a little bit,” said Nordberg. “If I go somewhere and see a better price, if we can do it, I mark it down to that.”
Nordberg and four employees run the store, which is open seven days a week. That can make for a scheduling challenge.
“Just cross your fingers and hope nobody gets sick,” she said of the lean-and-mean operation.
Meanwhile, Nordberg has far more experience there and in the hardware field than all of her employees combined — most hardware employees on the Harbor for that matter.
But she never dreamed that she’d make a career of it when she started more than two decades ago. She was just looking for a job.
“I never thought it would be a career,” she said, smiling. “I thought I would work here a couple of years. I never thought I’d have to know how to read a tape measure, carry a knife or anything. I cut pipe. I never thought in my life I’d have to know how to do that.”
She’s learned to do far more than that.
“I do a bit of everything here. I repair the lamps, work on the heaters — everything — from sweeping the floor to changing the light bulbs.”
The lamps have become something of a specialty. Nordberg was trained in small electronics when the store still had electricians working out of it, which ended in 1998.
Nordberg charges $10.50 per hour to repair lamps, heaters and the occasional vacuum cleaner.
“Some of the lamps give me a challenge,” she said. “I’ve been repairing lamps and heaters for almost 20 years. I kind of do it just whenever I can — in between customers and other stuff. Some of the lamps are pretty intricate. I like doing it. I wish I could do just that sometimes. I enjoy it.”
And that’s a big difference between this store and many of its larger competitors.
“I think when people realize — for one — that they don’t have to walk a mile to a register, that people know where stuff is in here — not only the clerks, but the customers know where stuff’s at. We have a lot of loyal people because of our customer service. They know we’re going to help them and we’ll be here tomorrow.”
But gaining the customers’ trust has been a bit of a challenge, being a woman in a male-dominated field.
“Some customers were a little standoffish at first because I was a young kid who would get embarrassed easily back then — not knowing what to do,” she said of her early years as a clerk. “But later, they started figuring out that ‘Hey, she does know something’ or “That she could help us, then they would come around.”
But she still runs into those stereotypes every now and then.
“Guys sometimes don’t want you to help them — women sometimes, too,” she said matter-of-factly. “They’ll say ‘Can I talk to the guy?’”
Nordberg said more often than not those people and the other employees will eventually end up seeking out her knowledge of the store and its merchandise.
“I’ve also had some people who claim they won’t come in here unless I’m here or they’ll call and only want to talk to me. It’s just because I’ve been here so long and they know.”
Nordberg also puts her knowledge to work around the house, where she and her husband do all their own handiwork at their South Aberdeen home.
“If I don’t know how to do it I’ll figure it out because I’m not going to call somebody else to do it,” she says of her home projects.
Then she takes that knowledge back to the job.
“I try to use the stuff in the store in my home so I can tell the customers what works, like this P-trap or that valve because I have one at home and I know it works. I’m not going to tell somebody it’s good if I don’t know it’s good. I’m not going to do it,” she said. “There’s a few things we’ve gotten in here that I don’t carry anymore because it’s no good. So why sell it to them, because it’s just going to break and then they’re going to get upset because it’s broken and have to bring it back.”
She readily admits she’s probably more handy at home than her husband of 19 years, Larry, who works as a supervisor at Bergstrom Foundry in Aberdeen.
“I think he’d probably say so, too,” she said, chuckling.
And she’s right.
“She does all the electrical, all the plumbing. She’s definitely better than I am at that stuff,” said Larry, who happened by the store on his wife’s lunch break. “Yeah, I take some ribbing for that.”
When not working, Kellie Nordberg is a voracious reader, taking on “two or three books” at a time.
“I’ll read just about anything — it doesn’t matter what it is. I can’t stand not reading. I picked it up when I started working here. But there’s too many books, I can’t keep up,” she said with a laugh.
“I have a Kindle and sometimes I read with that. But not very often because I feel like I’m cheating on books.”
She and Larry live at home with their 16-year-old son, Jake, a student at Harbor High. Nordberg also has a 26-year-old daughter, Rachell, who now works at the pontoon site after serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan. She also has a granddaughter, 3-year-old Kelsie.
After 22 years, Nordberg seems quite content with where she’s at.
“I’ll work here until I retire. I don’t see me going anywhere else. As long as the store’s here I’m here, ” she said. “I like it. I really do.”
There can be some minor aggravations, especially during Christmas season.
“One of the worst things is when people do their Christmas lights wrong and they come in looking for a double-ended male or female plug. And that’s like ‘No. Not a good idea.’”
“‘But, they make them’ they’ll say to me. And I’ll tell them, ‘No they don’t, and there’s a reason they don’t make a double male plug. You’ll cook yourself.’”
Nordberg would rather answer those dumb questions than see her customers go where they won’t get personal service or year-round stock.
“I wish more of Hoquiam was here,” she said. “Sometimes I say we’re the best-kept secret in Hoquiam. But we carry heaters year-round. You want a heater in the middle of summer, we got it. Fans in the middle of winter. We got it. Nuts and bolts. We sell a lot of nuts and bolts and you don’t have to buy a whole package. And you can still buy one nail or a pound of nails, whatever you want. Screws. We sell it all, not just by the pound or 50-pound box. We have housewares and we can order so much — people don’t have any idea.”
On top of all that, there’s a woman with 22 years of hardware experience.
“And she’s the best boss in the entire world,” said Kelsey Fox, who’s been working at Ace Electric True Value since 2008. “I even bring her a maple bar and coffee some mornings because I love her so much.”
Just another reason why Nordberg is one of those lucky people who really enjoys her work.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else now,” she said. “It’s fun. I love it. I love the people who come in, the people I work with. It’s all good.”
David Haerle, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3928, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.