WORTHINGTON — The hardware business isn’t easy, but despite a relatively recent change in management, Schwalbach Ace Hardware of Worthington remains in capable hands.

Following the October 2017 retirement of hardware stalwart Gaylen Hubbard, longtime employee Dean Johnson managed the store for over a year until he, too, retired from full-time work.

And on Oct. 1, 2019, six-year Ace employee Deb Steinle became the store’s newest manager.

New view

Steinle is a local retail veteran. She and her husband John have lived in Brewster for 40 years.

After devoting herself to helping raise the Steinles’ three children (they now have 11 grandchildren), Steinle was the youth director at First United Methodist Church for four years. She then worked at the Worthington JC Penney store for 15 years before joining the Ace staff.

“There is so much to learn in hardware, but that’s one of the challenges I like about it; it forces me to constantly learn and grow,” said Steinle.

She credits the Ace employees — there are 14 full- and part-time staff at the Oxford Avenue store — for having helpful, hardworking attitudes.

“We try and be supportive of each other,” said Steinle, “and of the new people coming up because there is such a broad range of areas to become knowledgeable about in order to best serve our customers.”

Steinle cited hardware, electrical, paint, plumbing, tools, kitchen and bath fixtures, lighting, automotive, RV/boating, pet supply, seasonal items and giftware as several — but not all — of the item categories for which Ace stocks multiple products.

She says she enjoys meeting new people and greeting returning customers, and she is also grateful that both Johnson and Hubbard continue in part-time positions at Ace.

“I appreciate that both Dean [Johnson] and Gaylen [Hubbard] are still here,” said Steinle. “If questions come along, they’re always helpful and offer support.

“Helping people fill their hardware needs is what we’re all about.”

Hubbard’s hardware legacy

While Steinle’s hardware knowledge stretches back slightly less than a decade, Hubbard was born to the business and can’t remember ever not being in a hardware store.

“I grew up in Bigelow, and my dad owned Hubbard Hardware there,” said Hubbard.

In fact, Hubbard’s great-grandfather, M.J. Hubbard, first arrived in Alcester, S.D., from the Lake Erie area via prairie schooner (prior to 1900).

“Things weren’t going well there, so he moved to Bigelow and opened a hardware and general store there,” said Hubbard.

By the time Hubbard himself was a little shaver, Hubbard Hardware was a third-generation store, having transferred first to Hubbard’s grandpa Ralph and then to his dad, Ronald.

“When I was old enough to push a broom — about 5 or 6 years old — my dad put me to work,” said Hubbard. “I liked to hang around there, and if there was nothing else for me to do, I’d stack washers or straighten out bolt bins, things that didn’t really need doing but kept me busy.”

Hubbard, who admits he’s always felt comfortable in the hardware environment, has historically noteworthy memories of Hubbard Hardware.

“When television first came out in the ’50s, my dad started selling TVs, and that involved putting antennae up on people’s roofs,” said Hubbard. “He was a pretty good climber.

“And with all the TVs going in the store, Saturday night wrestling or boxing matches were popular,” Hubbard continued.

“Dad couldn’t come home right at closing time because all the guys were at the store watching the fights.”

Hubbard also remembers his father and grandfather repairing horse harnesses and canvases that were used with combines.

“But that was all in the ’50s and very early ’60s,” said Hubbard. “So many things over the years have come and gone.”

Enter: Coast to Coast, preceding Ace

Hubbard Hardware itself landed in the “come and gone” column when it closed in 1967 as business gravitated toward larger towns. Hubbard did so, too; he began working for Don Motl at Worthington’s Coast to Coast hardware on 10th Street in 1969.

“And around 1978 we moved into the former Woolworth building, which is now Top Asian Foods,” said Hubbard.

“The store was purchased by Schwalbach Ace in 2002 or 2003, and we moved to the Oxford Street location in 2005.”

Hubbard lends both continuity and experience to Schwalbach Ace, where he continues working 12 to 13 hours each week.

“Way back in the ’50s and ’60s, every ticket was handwritten so you had to add up everything,” said Hubbard.

“Even into the ’80s we had to write out each individual pipe fitting.”

And speaking of pipes, Hubbard observes that while “in the old days” they were usually iron or copper, today they aren’t.

“Everything’s going to plastic,” said Hubbard. “There’s some galvanized pipe, but it’s mainly plastic.

“And light bulbs… there’s no such thing as a 100-watt bulb anymore,” he noted. “And nobody seems to use oil-based paint now; everything is latex, and we even use a computer to help mix the paint.”

Hardware specialist at rest

Walking around with his head full of knowledge tidbits regarding thousands of different things, Hubbard has found ways to unwind from hardware.

With his wife (the former Janice Ling, whom he married in 1971), Hubbard particularly enjoys biking and baseball.

“We try to get on the bikes and ride whenever it’s nice out,” he said. “We like riding around Worthington, but we also take our bikes and go to Sioux Falls, Okoboji, Lanesboro, Mankato or the Twin Cities.

“Sometimes we’ll go up to see a Twins game and ride bikes the next day.”

One advantage Hubbard has over many other recreational bicycling enthusiasts: He also knows how to fix bikes.

“I’ve done a lot of bike repair,” he chuckled.

The Hubbards have three grown children — a daughter and two sons — and 12 grandchildren. In addition, Hubbard’s 91-year-old mother, June, continues to thrive, so a broad range of family events keeps him occupied.

“And I also refurbish pool tables,” said Hubbard, not one to let much grass grow under his feet.

Hubbard has plenty of incentive to stay active and keep a hand in hardware for the indefinite future.

“I’ve been in the hardware business for over 50 years,” he confirmed, “and I’m still going.”