Kendall’s Ace Hardware without the Kendall? He’s getting ready to hand off to the next generation.

With little more than a high school education, Kendall Crosby bought his first hardware store on St. Paul’s Dale Street in 1992, followed in 2005 by a second shop at Payne and Maryland avenues that had been run by Bill and Gladys Godwin, near-legends among the neighborhood locals.

A Ramsey County turn-lane project proved to be an unlikely boon, inspiring city officials to help Crosby relocate the latter down the street to a long-vacant municipal lot at the corner of Payne and Phalen Boulevard in 2012. The corner needed an anchor, and the business corridor needed a boost.

Customers followed. A decade after that fateful move, Kendall’s Ace Hardware on Payne was invited to Las Vegas in January to celebrate the national cooperative’s top performers.

Crosby, sporting a sprawling white beard, signature tie-dye T-shirt and equally signature cowboy hat, features prominently in the chain’s congratulatory video for “Coolest Hardware Store of 2023,” but he didn’t bother to show up to Sin City in person.

“I sit in the basement,” quipped Crosby, who has been spending his summers at a cabin and describes himself these days as more of a bookkeeper than a salesman. “I’ve got a shirt that says, ‘When’s lunch?'”

Next generation

Instead, with an eye toward retirement, he sent the next generation of Kendall’s Ace Hardware proprietors to Vegas in his place.

On Jan. 1, 2024, he hopes to hand over the store keys, metaphorically speaking, to two longtime top managers — his daughter Ashley and her husband, fourth-generation East Sider Matt Lloyd. The changing of the guard will cap Crosby’s more than 30 years in the business.

“I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,” said Crosby, who but for the pandemic probably would have made 2022 his last year of balancing books and ordering box nails.

And what he accomplished as a commercial anchor in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city came as some surprise to observers, including himself.

The Payne Avenue location is known as much for its outgoing customer service as its two cats, the Lloyd family’s popular German shepherd named Cleo, a popcorn stand, a classic phone booth that actually works and somewhat tongue-in-cheek window displays, until recently prepared by Crosby’s wife, Alexandra. It’s gained “Pinnacle” status within the Illinois-based Ace Hardware cooperative as one of a few hundred top sellers among some 5,300 shops nationwide.

The average hardware store, said Crosby, sells $150 of product per square foot. Ace stores tend to sell $200 to $250 per square foot.

On Payne Avenue, an immigrant business corridor known for its diversity but not for its deep pockets, “right now we’re running $485 a square foot,” Crosby said.

Cornering the market

With no other hardware shops on St. Paul’s East Side, a certain exclusivity has helped, as have a few key customer service strategies. Among them, said Crosby, is constant inventory management. Always keep product on the shelf. A depleted shelf or near-empty hook doesn’t signal to customers healthy sales — it advertises a lack of options, and a reason to shop somewhere else.

“If it’s an empty hook, the customer can’t buy it,” Crosby said. “You don’t just lose the sale, you lose the couple other things they would have bought with it. You lose the pipe wrench and the Teflon tape, too. … Anyone can sell hot dogs, but try going to the State Fair to sell 100,000. It isn’t that easy.”

Another strategy?

“Being friendly — that was my dad’s number one thing,” Ashley Lloyd said. “Being friendly goes a long way. A lot of places you go to nowadays, you’re lucky to get greeted.”

There are five Ace Hardware stores in Minneapolis, but no other Ace Hardware shops operate in all of St. Paul, following the sale in 2021 of the Frattalone family’s metro-wide Hardware and Garden chain — which maintains two former Ace Hardware shops on Grand Avenue — to the Central Network Retail Group of Tennessee. In fact, beyond Kendall’s and Frattalone’s, there are few other hardware stores in St. Paul, period.

The closest stores to Crosby’s Payne Avenue location are Do It Best Hardware at Rice Street and Jessamine Avenue in the city’s North End, as well as his original store on Dale Street.

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The Hamline Hardware Hank store that greeted generations of customers at Snelling and Englewood avenues closed in March 2020, capping 94 years in operation. Beyond specialty tool suppliers, the other options include the Menards home improvement big-box store at University and Prior avenues in the St. Paul Midway, the Noll Hardware Hank on Raymond Avenue and S&S Hardware on Randolph Avenue.

In Crosby’s corners of St. Paul, Kendall’s is it, and he’s tried to make the best of it across three decades.

“Back in ’92, I didn’t have much to put on the line but my ’74 wagon,” said Crosby, recalling opening his first store on Dale Street, followed by the relocation of his second shop along Payne Avenue 20 years later. “In 2012, I said holy (expletive), if I don’t make this go, I’ll lose everything, but the city and the bank will have a brand-new building.”

“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Crosby said. “We were just a small store with a lot of heart. But because the city was involved, the bank took me on.”

‘How you revive an old, beat-up neighborhood’

At the time, officials with the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority assured Crosby that his new storefront, anchoring the prominent corner with Phalen Boulevard, would serve as a badly needed gateway to the business corridor. Crosby just wanted to sell hammers and snowblowers.

Said Matt Lloyd, “The land was empty for a long, long time, as far as I can remember — a sore spot on the neighborhood.”

Since then, Crosby has seen projects like the 99-unit Nova SP apartment building sprout up directly next door, as well as new restaurants and pubs, ethnic markets and more. Not every project has survived the pandemic, but Crosby is nothing but optimistic about the future of the avenue. He briefly considered renting the commercial space on the ground level of Nova SP to sell Weber grills.

“The things the city told me 10 years ago, things I didn’t understand about reviving the neighborhood … the city really did know what they were doing,” Crosby said. “They did have a vision. The things that are happening there, with the new building next door to us, with 99 units of housing, this is how you revive an old, beat-up neighborhood.”

Now it’s Ashley and Matt Lloyd’s turn to promote Kendall’s, as well as Payne Avenue.

“These kids understand the technology a lot more,” Crosby said.

Matt Lloyd, a proud Eagle Scout like his father and his father before him, had spent his high school years and onward working at the Downtowner car wash and the original Red’s Savoy Pizza on Seventh Street washing dishes, among a dozen or so other jobs, when he showed up at Kendall’s in 2006, ready to learn the industry. He was as serious and focused as Ashley was friendly.

“They really did work great together. It was a good team,” Crosby recalled. “They worked all the time. And pretty soon love blossomed out of it, they got a couple kids. I call him ‘Stick’ and her ‘Smiles.’ She follows my easygoing style. He grew up on the East Side without all the opportunities.”

“I was the same way,” said Crosby, of the future owner of the shop that bears his name. “I wasn’t geared for going to college. He’s got the most integrity and he’s the most honest guy I’ve ever met. We don’t have college education. We’re on the street trying to survive.”

Three dogs and two cats

Ashley recalled working the aisles of Kendall’s as a teen with rescue dogs tied to her hip. Back then, she mostly thought of the shop as an avenue to promote her passion — animal adoption. These days, while Cleo the German shepherd helps her greet customers, her 6-year-old Rottweiler named Lila nurses a torn ACL in the basement office, where a longtime employee keeps his puggle named Bandit.

When schools go remote, as they did during recent storms, Ashley is just as likely to come to work with her 6-year-old son, Kaden, and 8-year-old son, Axel, who have their own specialties when it comes to stacking inventory.

For Crosby, times are changing. He lost his mother toward the outset of the pandemic and more recently his father. Brian Leas, a friend since his teen years who came to work for Crosby after retiring early from the grocery business, died in January.

Joining Crosby in retirement will be his wife, Alexandra Crosby, a former storefront display specialist for department stores such as Macy’s and Nordstrom’s. The pair met in 2008 and married six months later. Alexandra has handed responsibility for the Kendall’s displays to a new creative designer who goes by the name Dragon. The signage, noted Crosby with almost giddy enthusiasm, will soon say, “Windows by Dragon.”

It’s a way of ensuring continuity, even as the names and faces change.

“There’s a lot of history here in the neighborhood on the East Side. That hardware store’s been part of my life since I was a kid,” said Matt Lloyd, who recalled picking up items from the Godwins, Crosby’s predecessor, as a child. “It’s been working for 10 solid years that we’ve been on this location. … Colonel Sanders said it best — don’t change what works. Don’t change the recipe.”

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