ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — There was a time when Kendall Crosby thought nothing of stapling another country’s flag to a runner rug and using it as a doormat. Customers to his North Dale Street hardware store would wipe their dirty shoes, put out cigarettes or even spit on it. After six weeks, when it was finally unrecognizable, an employee attached it to his jeep bumper, lit it on fire and drove off, celebrating its destruction.
That was 25 years ago, in war time, and Crosby now has a new outlook on customer service and neighborhood pride, the Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/2oK0D2P ) reported. It goes along with his somewhat rosier outlook on life in general. In fact, Kendall’s Ace Hardware now bills itself as “The Friendliest Stores in Town.”
These days, after 25 years in business, Crosby is prone to wearing tie-dye shirts, designing elaborate art pieces and finding ways to connect his North Dale Street and Payne-Phalen shops to people of all backgrounds, especially low-income clients, of which he has many.
Cookie Cart, a nonprofit that teaches teens who might otherwise be on the street how to make and market cookies, meets regularly in his basement conference room as it plans its expansion to Payne Avenue. In a neighborhood where some residents openly fear local teenagers, he recently promoted the same shop as a destination for young people playing the phone-based game Pokemon Go.
His wife, Alexandra, the daughter of a theater professor, spreads her influence liberally, spending weeks on Jackson Pollock-inspired expressionist paintings that hang in key corners of the Payne Avenue location. A cat, a dog and a puppy wander the aisles, under elaborate props and theatrical displays. Three robots made of mop buckets guard one end of the store. A giant Spider-man cut-out guards another. In an upstairs office, Crosby reveals his own pastimes: a pool table, and a wall full of his pencil art.
“We run our store like a rock band,” said Crosby, whose t-shirts unapologetically display the company’s 25th anniversary motto — “Screw It!”
His evolution into a purveyor of positive thinking has been earned with broken shop windows, hard-fought business decisions and even a recent concussion (he ran into a piece of store hardware, the hardware won).
Crosby, a grandpa to seven boys, grew up near the rough-and-tumble stockyards of South St. Paul and never went to college, but he peppers his philosophy on business with wisdom learned from inspirational marketing books written by Harvard-trained professors.
At 14, he got sucked into the hardware business after his older brother got caught shoplifting hockey skates from a Suburban Hardware store in West St. Paul and had to work for the store owner for $1 an hour as penance. Crosby soon joined him assembling lawn mowers, learning everything hands-on.
“I was no good in school, I didn’t like school,” said Crosby, before launching into a long critique of higher education.
Crosby recalls how desperation forced him to apply more of the inspirational book wisdom 12 years ago.
In mid-2007, less than two years after after he purchased his former store at Payne and Maryland avenues, a salesman walked in and asked him how business was going. Things were crummy. “Fine,” said Crosby, lying. “That’s not what I heard,” said the salesman.
Crosby’s idle chatter with fellow hardware store owners — he grew up near the Frattalone family of Frattallone’s Ace Hardware Stores and Garden Centers, among others — had leaked out, and the word was that his gamble on Payne Avenue had gone wrong.
The avenue, once considered a major business district for St. Paul on par with Grand Avenue, lost its luster when Interstate 35E was built in the 1980s. North of downtown St. Paul, the interstate bypassed the Payne-Phalen neighborhood all the way to its next exit on Maryland Avenue. Kendall recalled a time when at least seven buildings with fully intact kitchens stood empty on Payne, each of them a former restaurant or bar.
“It was a rough, tough neighborhood,” Crosby said. “Hell yeah, it was. Payne was up and down. People were trying really hard. They were doing window displays in vacant buildings.”
Crosby didn’t want to be known as a failing shop owner on a dying street. He overturned his penny jar and discovered $125 in coins. That was enough to buy five Carbone’s pizzas, cake and soda for everyone — staff, family, anyone passing by on the street. Bewildered workers wondered what the celebration was all about. “Our sales,” Crosby told them, “are terrific!”
He encouraged his customers to come back, and he asked his workers to hit the same sales goals the next day.
By the end of the year, sales were up 12 percent. He’s been celebrating ever since, in good times and bad. Around Valentine’s Day one year, a bar patron threw an ash tray through his window display of a large chocolate wrench. A year later, he put the display up again, this time with a sign saying “Flowers, Chocolate and Bulletproof Glass. Happy Valentine’s Day!”
A few years ago, when a county road project and construction of the city’s Arlington Hills Community Center ate up his corner, he built a new facility from the ground-up at Payne Avenue and Phalen Boulevard. It cost him $2 million, made possible with help from the county’s eminent domain purchase and a federal urban revitalization grant through the city of St. Paul. In addition to colorful, frequently-changing storefront displays, a giant screw jutting out near the roof line serves as the store’s most visible prop.
Crosby said the store would have cost about $2 million to build anywhere, whether it be Edina, Lakeville or Highland Park. But when it opened at the Payne-Phalen intersection in October 2012, the estimated market value instantly plummeted below $1 million. In those other neighborhoods, he figures, the building’s resale value would have quickly grown alongside the economy.
In Payne-Phalen, it’s been a slower climb, though a gratifying one. In the past five years, Payne Avenue has finally regained some lost cachet, drawing fusion restaurants next door to the more traditional taco shops and tortillerias. Not many commercial districts in Minnesota can boast of a restaurant based on ethical animal husbandry, a Hmong senior center, a Mexican candy store, a beloved lunch spot like East Side Thai and pre-Prohibition era saloons popular with third- and fourth-generation neighborhood locals.
But over the course of a two-hour lunch and shop tour, Crosby never lets one forget that Payne-Phalen is still a poor neighborhood — arguably the second-poorest in the city, after the North End. He discovered early on that stocking the shop with $900 Weber grills and teen clerks to roll them out wouldn’t go far with his customers. Instead, he’s more of a nuts and bolts specialist.
“Instead of having one nine-volt battery, we’ll have a lithium, we’ll have a titanium, we’ll have many different choices,” Crosby said.
He employs 10 handymen, house painters and others who can tell a hex bolt from a socket head, in addition to his wife, her sister Tina Poletes-Woesson, his step-son Josh Kahlhamer, his daughter Ashley Lloyd, son-in-law Matt Lloyd and Lloyd’s father Gary.
“I only hire friendly people,” Crosby said. “I give them two weeks. You know if they’ll work out and they know it. We found out people like friendly people more than they appreciate the right answer sometimes. Even when we catch a shoplifter, we say ‘hey dude, just take it out of your pocket and walk away.’ We’re on the level with everybody.”
Crosby’s promotions, like the neighborhood announcements on his front door, don’t just celebrate the store — they celebrate the area for blocks around. He’s a neighborhood guy, he explains, and has been since his childhood in South St. Paul. As a result, when he arrived in Payne-Phalen, Crosby said he felt like he fit right in, despite his fascination with 1960s comic books and collectibles (he keeps a salvaged coin-operated phone booth in working condition in the shop basement).
Kahlhamer, 34, a step-son from a previous marriage, has been managing the 978 N. Dale Street location since 2006 and plans to buy the shop this year.
“He started working there when he was five,” said Crosby.
Crosby is eyeing a time 5 or 10 years down the line when he can focus on his autobiography. He keeps early chapters, written years ago, in a notebook in the basement of his Payne Avenue store. He’s not sure how it will turn out, but he’s been long-wedded to the title, same as his anniversary slogan: “Screw This!”
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com