The Gardiners are not the oldest family in Pine River, but because of the family hardware store — Gardiner’s Hardware — they are one of the most well known.
The Gardiner family trickled into Pine River a little at a time. At first they visited, vacationed and fished, but eventually they all came to stay. Virgil (C.V.) Gardiner was originally from Ree Heights, S.D., and moved to Brainerd in 1934.
A man named Harris Zigmund was selling a building on Barclay Avenue in Pine River in 1917. It first housed a hardware store in 1932 under W.S. Gilbert and then Zigmund leased it. Gardiner bought the building in 1935, and he took over the building’s tenants.
Gardiner began traditions that would thrive to this day in the form of personal customer service and a hard work ethic.
His son, Paul Gardiner, once said his father performed quality control by testing every oven he sold by baking a cake.
Gardiner’s was a Gamble Hardware store until 1943. Virgil decided to sell his hardware store to his sons, Paul and Kenneth, in 1948. The business was under their ownership when Marshall-Wells informed its stores that they were going out of business on Christmas Eve of 1958.
“Then they became what was going to be called Jenny’s Simple Hill, which was S and Q store (service and quality). They were only there for a couple years and then they joined Hardware Hank (1961), which was with United Hardware,” said Gary Gardiner, Paul’s son.
Paul’s wife, Marge, began working full time at the store in 1964. The store was never the same. In a letter Paul wrote in an issue of the Pine River Journal, he said she was the one who pushed to have the building expanded in 1970.
A new section was added to the building, extending it into what was once the alley behind the store. An electrical fire gutted the old building and destroyed the expansion the January after completion.
In the Pine River Journal story, Paul wrote, “It was a temptation to call it quits, but we decided to build it back bigger and better.”
Another story was added to the expansion to expand the furniture department.
Kenneth sold his share of the business to Paul and Marge in 1977 and retired.
Paul said Marge convinced him to remove the apartments and rental space above the store.
“The tenants, in a way, were a liability. ... It is like any other landlord tenant. They decided they would rather not have the hassles and they would be better off having more room for the merchandise,” Gary said.
Marge shared the company’s tradition of personal service. Following her passing on July 21, 2013, neighboring business owner John Wetrosky said Marge kept track of birthdays, anniversaries and other big life events for many of their customers.
“She didn’t miss too many occasions sending out a card for someone that had one of those occasions,” Wetrosky said.
Gary, the only son of Paul and Marge, had grown up in the store, witnessing how hard his parents worked for the family business. From an early age he would help out at the store. He said they were workaholics.
Gary did not intend to work at the store. He spent six years in college and 20 years in real estate in Denver, Colo. He reconsidered his stance in 1990.
“My father had been putting pressure on me to give him an answer as to whether or not I had interest because he thought he was old enough, he wanted to retire,” Gary said. “If I wasn’t going to come back and take care of the business, he needed to try and formulate a plan to liquidate the business. Because of the different things going on in my life and finding a woman (willing) to come to Minnesota, I decided we would basically give it a three-year try, and if we liked it we would buy the business.”
Now, in 2014, Gary, wife Janice, and their two English springer spaniels, Beau and Bud, are as well known to Pine River as Paul, Kenneth, Marge and Virgil before them, and they are just as devoted.
If a customer purchases a large appliance, Gary wastes no time in getting it delivered as soon as the customer is back home. In a truly old-fashioned tradition, Gary and Janice have been known to give credit to people who are facing cash shortages and failures of important appliances, such as water pumps or stoves.
“Their stove doesn’t work and they’ve never had any credit to anybody or they maybe have bad credit someplace and we feel we need to help them. We have to make it work,” Gary said.
With the change in community dynamics, Pine River is not the destination city it was when Virgil originally started the family business. People are more willing to drive long distances to shop. With more people going to Menards, Home Depot and Walmart, business isn’t quite what it used to be, but Gary said people still come to him when they are more concerned with quality and service than price.
“We try and wait on people and it freaks some people out if they are used to going to Walmart. They think we’re chasing them to try to catch them shoplifting or something. We’re just trying to help them,” Janice said.
The future of the business is uncertain. Gary would like to retire some day. His son, Sean, once showed interest in taking over the business, but Gary is unsure whether either of them is ready for the undertaking.
For now, Gardiner’s Hardware carries on nearly 80 years of service.