Oak Parker Johnnie King looks over a supply sheet at his family’s hardware store on Chicago’s West Side while his daughter Rosemary helps a group of customers.
Rosemary’s husband, John Lomax, is back in the store’s supply room looking up an item for another customer. King’s other daughter, Catherine, also works in the store, greeting someone who just walked in.
It’s a family affair at King Hardware, 4415 W. Madison. Formerly affiliated with Ace Hardware, King was the chain’s first black franchisee in Chicago in the late 1960s. He left Ace in 2007 to become an independent merchant, but still has an investment in the chain. The store has been his second home.
“I always say I sleep in Oak Park but I live here,” says King, an Oak Parker for nearly 30 years.
Nuts and bolts: Johnnie King, the first black franchisee for Ace Hardware in Chicago, has run his store since 1968 and is looking to retire. FRANK PINC/Staff Photographer
At 84, King says he’s ready to sell the business. He actually announced his retirement a couple of years ago, but has yet to find a buyer. King is still the first one at the store, bright and early, sweeping up outside just before opening the doors. He wants the shop to remain a hardware store.
Sitting in the heart of K-Town in Chicago’s North Lawndale community, the store has been a staple of this low-income neighborhood for years. King was just down the street for 10 years when he first opened.
People don’t just come in to buy things. They talk with King, his family members or among themselves. On this particular weekday afternoon, five guys are standing by the counter talking about drugs, gangs and some others problems in the neighborhood. Like a barbershop, King’s Hardware is a place where conversation can start on just about any topic. In recent years, the Mississippi native has seen other hardware stores in the community go by the wayside.
“I’m accepting the situation and not even letting it bother me at all,” he said. “What we’re doing is continuing the business independent. I’m just grateful to be operating after all these other people had to go.”
King says he’s doing as well as some of Ace’s stores and that his store isn’t in any financial trouble. But he’s gotten inquiries from folks under a different impression.
“I’m not trying to give it away,” he said of former store No. 65 under the Ace banner.
King credits his start in the hardware business to the man who first hired him. He’ll never forget his friend and mentor, Lou Starbaugh, who died in his 80s a few years ago. Starbaugh started a school to train minorities in the hardware trade. King took classes there at night and ran the store on the weekends while working at another job during the week. King took a leave of absence from the coffee company to see if he wanted to work at a hardware store full-time. He never went back.
King went on to buy his Ace Hardware store on the West Side in 1968. His children have worked there with him through the years, along with Beulah, his wife of more than 60 years. King, who’s called “Mr. Ace” by some in the community, grew up on a farm in Yazoo County in the Mississippi Delta. He’s one of seven children – two of his brothers are deceased. After serving in the Army during World War II, he came to work in Chicago. He’s lived in Oak Park for 28 years. His children also live in the village.
Rosemary Lomax said the family is ready for her dad’s retirement. She’s been working at the store since 1988. Her husband, John, is the store manager and has worked at the place even longer than she has. At one point, they put a playpen in the office.
“I set up shop here with my son,” she recalled.
Like her husband and siblings – her brother, Stanley, who works for a Chicago bank, helps with the store’s financial reports – Rosemary holds many jobs at King Hardware.
“I’m the office manager, the janitor. I do a little bit of everything. We all help out and pitch in to keep the business going,” she said.