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.”