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Longtime Wilton Pillar Keeler Hardware Closes

High rents and the death of the current owner sealed the fate as the Wilton business is another one to close its doors for good.

When Dave Lind bought Keeler Hardware in 2007, he was buying an established, solid business with roots stretching back almost 125 years. But with Lind’s death this past August, and the ‘Closed’ sign now hanging on the front door, it’s the first time Wilton is without a Keeler’s store since 1883.

“It’s sad the name is no longer in Wilton,” said Ryan Clifford, the great, great, great grandson of the first Keeler owner. “It’s a shame that the store is closed and it’s a sad way for the story to end. Dave was a very nice guy and I feel for his family.”

Patch spoke with several people close to Lind and to the Keeler story, and found a consistent theme: A difficult economy that hurt sales, coupled with unrealistically high rents made it almost impossible for the business to stay open, especially when its owner became too sick to continue with day-to-day operations.

Sadly, the Keeler Hardware story is one of a business with a longstanding legacy in town and the futile blood, sweat and tears of a man who tried to make it work but was defeated by economic costs too high to scale. It’s the coda to this Wilton tragedy that’s becoming .

Nice guy, hard worker

When Lind bought the business from the Keeler family in 2007, he’d already been working at the store for a few years, so he knew what owning it would take. “He was such a busy man after he bought it, but he enjoyed it tremendously,” said Wilton resident George Voss, Lind’s former father-in-law.

Glenn Hanlon, Lind’s friend and former employee, was recruited to help out part-time when Lind bought the store, and he stayed alongside his friend for the last four and a half years. He said Lind felt it was important to keep the Keeler name attached to the business because the name recognition would be extremely valuable in Wilton.

The business did well in the beginning under Lind’s stewardship, and Hanlon was understated when he recalled how much the community relied on Keeler’s as their neighborhood go-to hardware place. “When people came in with problems, we almost always had an answer,” he said.

Carol Johnson, vice president and manager of the Fairfield County Bank branch in Wilton agreed. “They had every kind of widget and knew everything about everything."

But even as a community mainstay, times got tough for Keeler as the economic landscape soured. According Hanlon, Lind bought the business at the height of the real estate market in Wilton, and the rent he had agreed to pay at first became too high to maintain once that market dropped out.

“You can’t sell enough nuts and bolts to cover $26,000 a month," Hanlon said.

Customers also feeling the pinch of a tight economy slowed down on their spending in the store. Hanlon characterizes the problems that ensued as a combination of high taxes, extremely high rent and a drop off in community support: “It was doomed to fail without that support.”

And then Lind became sick.

“Dave didn’t believe in doctors,” rued Hanlon. “He waited until he was really sick. We’d all beg him to go. He had emphysema and he was a big smoker, who never wanted to stop.”

Over the last year, even before Lind was hospitalized, it was clear to the community that the store was struggling, as shelves were barer and stock ran low.

Given the difficulties Lind was having, with the economy bottoming out and his own poor health issues, it soon became “more than anyone bargained for,” said Hanlon. Despite this, he stepped in to run the business once his ailing friend Lind was hospitalized.

After a long hospitalization, Lind finally succumbed to his illness, and passed away in August of 2011.

Rents are “way out of line for any hardware store” to make a go of it

Parties close to the backstory say it’s unlikely the business will continue, either with new owners or as a hardware store at all.

Hanlon was critical of the landlords who own the building where Keeler Hardward is currently located. “There were people interested in continuing with the store, but they won’t budge on the rent, and you can’t make a go of a hardware store on the rent they want to charge.”

Ryan Clifford, the Keeler descendent who currently owns a True Value hardware store in Bethel, agrees. “I personally think the rent they’re asking is way out of line. You have to have a very high performing hardware business to make it there,” he said.

At the rent levels mentioned, Clifford added, “In order to make it work you have to put in 150 percent, and we’re already putting in 140 percent in our store in Bethel. To do it properly, to do the Wilton community justice, we’d have to devote all our time.”

According to Wilton tax records, the building is owned by a limited liability company, 3 Godfrey Pl LLC, which is operated by Peter Hastings and Lewis Meriwether. Neither could be reached for comment.

As much as the story would have a bittersweet, romantic ending to have a Keeler family member return to take the business back over, sadly that doesn’t look like it will happen with the rents the landlords are currently asking, Clifford said.

“It’s shameful the property owners are not understanding. This isn’t 2006 or 2007 anymore; the economy has changed, the business environment has changed. To encourage the growth in Wilton you need to be more realistic. You can’t charge 2006 prices,” said Clifford.

“We entertained the thought, but it’s just too much. We would have loved to continue the Keeler store legacy. It’s a real shame the store is no longer there.

Lind and the store will be missed

People in Wilton will miss Lind and the familiar standby that was Keeler Hardware.

“I went in just last week, it’s where you went when you needed anything. He was such a nice man, and he was so generous to the community. It’s a part of old Wilton that can’t come back,” said Peg Koellmer, who owns Realty Seven.

Betty Ragognetti, Wilton’s town clerk, said she’s lived here almost 40 years, and echoed the sentiments. “It’s such a loss, he was such a nice man.”

Eve Donovan, vice president of the Friends of Ambler Farm put in perspective how much the community will miss Lind.

“David was always so kind. Even in very difficult economic times, he generously donated items from Keeler's Hardware to our fundraising auctions and spoke so highly of the community he was in and how important he felt it was to give back to the neighbors that had been so good to him.  His passing was a great loss to our community.”

EMR October 11, 2011 at 01:29 PM
$26,000.00 monthly rent? In this economy? The owners and bank did not try to restructure? Now, it's a vacant building and nobody wins.
Rational Wilton Mom October 11, 2011 at 01:50 PM
Very sad about Mr. Lind's passing away. Also very sad that a true hardware store, yet another store in Wilton, has closed. We always tried to shop there rather than shop at the big, impersonal stores such as Home Depot and Lowes. Mr. Brennan needs to see what is happening to Wilton and do something about it. Soon, there will be no stores in town for us to shop in and enjoy Mr. Brennan's pretty little street lights that line the streets.
William sherman October 11, 2011 at 02:01 PM
Well landlords need to make a profit on their property. After all the building is assessed for 1,629,950, and they paid 3,200,000 so the taxes must be around 35,000 per year based on the assesment give or take.So that is about 3,000 per month give or take. So they have around 23,000 left over per month. What do you expect, the landlord needs to make a profit and have something left to pay down the loan. Hopefully some new enterprise will come into our "Business Friendly" town,. I understand Exxon is looking for a place, not sure they can afford it.
alan gorkin October 11, 2011 at 02:25 PM
When economic times were better, I could understand rentals like this. However,when times get difficult, If the alternative is a vacant store, can landlords consider working with tenants to get through the tough times? Honestly don't feel anyone is going to be able to fill that spot, certainly not yet another nail salon, realty or bank.
Ann Billik October 11, 2011 at 02:30 PM
Dave Lind, who I affectionately called Hardware Dave, was a kind and generous man with a wonderful sense of humor. My heart breaks to learn of his passing and I send wishes of peace to his children and family.
EMR October 11, 2011 at 02:31 PM
"Landlords need to make a profit" Well, now the landlords are making zero a month and paying taxes for a non producing asset.
Joe Burke October 11, 2011 at 03:16 PM
This store will be missed. Dave was a big help to me many times. While stores like Keeler's and Michaelena's closing are a loss for the community it is important to note that we have had many new businesses come to town recently including a new bagels store, candy store, The Athlete's Foot, Swizzle's, a new restaurant and a fencing academy to name a few. I am not sure if a stand alone bakery or hardware store is still a viable business model anymore-taxes are part of it but location and business model are important too
William sherman October 11, 2011 at 05:24 PM
I hope everyone commenting on this knows that my post is facetious. Profit. ? If my math is even in the ballpark, this is a ridiculous amount and way beyond what is necessary in this day and time, especially if it runs a business into the ground. The landlord does not pay a dividend. EMR is right on. As far as any new business in town are concerned, just give it some time to see how it works out. Keelers was not a new business in name. Business model? Perhaps based local demand for a specific product line or service but Wilton is not big enough in the downtown area to worry about location, as long as there is a nearby parking space. Has anyone done an exit survey of the business’ that have folded in town to see the extent there rent contributed to there closing? Hardware stores in Wilton were great to have; now we have nothing. Remember Wilsons?
Joe Burke October 11, 2011 at 05:52 PM
I disagree. As useful as I found Keelers to be, I often spent less than $2-3 per visit because i was just looking for some small piece of hardware. It cannot be practical to have 10-20% of your store dedicated to items which cost less than 10 cents like nuts and bolts, wire and wire nuts unless that brought higher margin conduit business. The sales volumes and margins cannot be sufficient on these small items. Location matters even in a small town like Wilton. I suspect that Michaelina's would have had a better shot of surviving if they had been located in the Stop and Shop center.
William sherman October 11, 2011 at 06:50 PM
Michaelina was a gourmet specialty shop, they seemed to have good traffic, and according to their PR on the new Danbury location they will do more catering. Don’t know what the rents are at the S & S center, ask Blue Tulip. I bought my Weber grill at Keelers, they were on backorder for a while. Don’t know about the nuts and bolts volume,could be 20% if you say so but I did buy some of those also. Sometimes fast dimes are better than slow dollars. Also got a number of other items for electrical appliances, special bulbs etc. They always seemed to have good traffic. It was easier than going to the big box hardware stores. More time for chores here, less time on the road and less gas, and someone who knows you. Oh, Scoops is in location like Michaelina, but I presume that is partly a seasonal business.. Guess the rents OK there. Again I ask ,what about a survey on closings and the reasons?
John Symon October 11, 2011 at 10:27 PM
The tenant was paying the taxes. Ever hear of a triple net lease?
Ronni McLaughlin October 11, 2011 at 10:32 PM
I am very sorry to see Keelers close its doors. All 4 of my children had worked there and my son, Brian worked alongside Glenn until the last day. They sold a variety of items. I don't understand how landlords in this town would rather have an empty store than work with tenants and get something.
Joe Burke October 12, 2011 at 02:38 AM
Blue Tulip did not fail in Wilton- the entire chain failed- Wilton was just a part of that failure. Please re-read my comment- I said that upwards of 20% of the store carried low margin items- i never said that accounted for 20% of it's sales. If by your "fast dimes" comment you are suggesting that they had cash flow problems then i could not comment as i have no idea but i take you at your word. I am not sure why you consider a very good bakery to be a "gourmet specialty shop" when in fact they were just that- a good bakery which provided baked goods to the local markets for resale
EMR October 12, 2011 at 03:54 AM
I'm sorry. You have a banker commenting about little widgets and things in your article. That's a nice thing to say.
sean armstrong October 12, 2011 at 12:40 PM
Peter Hastings and Lewis Meriwether well perhaps its time they starved for a while OPEN YOUR EYES and if you still own the property after a year, after paying the Mortgage with no income you will then understand, if your Mortgage is still active and not foreclosed on?????....
Steve Symonds October 17, 2011 at 07:25 AM
Simon Legree couldn't have said it any better. Ugh.
Connie Packard Kamedulski October 19, 2011 at 11:50 AM
Could a reporter please confirm the rumored $26000 per month rent. I am not sure that anyone in their right mind would be paying $26000 per month for that particular space for a hardware store. Do the math folks -- that is very nearly $1000 per day. If rent for a retail space should generally be less than 10% of sales, that's $10,000 per day in sales. Open 8 am to 6 pm? That's $1000 per hour. Ten customers at $100 each every single hour, day in, day out? One hundred customers at $10 each? From my personal experience, it's extremely busy when a cashier rings more than 20 sales an hour -- and 40 sales per hour is a record pace, Christmas Eve style, with a line, and everyone moving at stepped up pace. If you told me that the space rented for $27 per square foot per year, that's more reasonable -- if the space is 6000 sf, that's $13,500 per month. Still a nice piece of change but more doable.
Heather Borden Herve October 19, 2011 at 03:19 PM
Thanks Connie for asking. The figure was double-sourced. It was first provided by someone close to the management of the store, and it was confirmed by another source with ties to the situation. The square footage is actually 11,000 sf (only 5,000 or so of sales floor), so by your calculations that actually would place the monthly rent ABOVE $26,000. Repeated calls to the building owners were never returned.

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