GOSHEN — Jeff Hall was just 8 years old in 1970 when his father, John, opened John Hall True Value Hardware downtown.
Right away, Jeff had wanted to work in the store that captured his father’s passion for retailing and customer service, but John made him work elsewhere first.
"He said, ‘I don’t want you coming in here and thinking, ‘I’m your son, I don’t really have to do anything,’” Jeff recalled. “He says, ‘You go out and see how it’s done, and then you can come in here.’”
So Jeff, admittedly a little “under-age,” worked at Shasta RV and Blue Ribbon Ladder, two former Goshen manufacturers, before his dad let him start at the store at age 17. He’s loved it ever since.
"It’s always great ... every day is different,“ Jeff said. “I like to make money, but to me it’s more rewarding to help a customer with a project and they’ve left here and we’ve helped them. They’re able to go on with their day and they feel good when they leave the store. That’s my goal.”
At its annual meeting Tuesday, Aug. 26, the Elkhart County Agricultural Society will honor Jeff, John Jr. and their mother, Phyllis, with the 2014 Agri-Business Award of Excellence. The Hall family is a longtime supporter of the society, donating a True Value toy truck coin bank each year as an annual meeting door prize.
“We sell a lot to the farmers, as far as equipment repair needs, bolts, fasteners, stuff you need on the farm,” Hall said.
“They are truly an economic and trustworthy asset to Elkhart County,” said Nancy Borkholder, secretary at Elkhart County Purdue Extension. “If you can’t find it at John Hall’s, it is probably not made.”
John Hall Sr. died of stomach cancer in 2012 at age 85, only a month after he and his family discovered he had it. Jeff will accept the award at the banquet.
"It’s quite an honor, actually, because agriculture is what we all depend on,” he said. “It’s what we eat. I really didn’t see that forthcoming. We were really surprised to get that.”
Hall said he works about 60 hours a week, running the store from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, taking Thursdays off and working half a day on Sunday, when it’s closed. He said he learned his work ethic from his father.
"I wish you could have met him,” he told a reporter. “He was a go-getter. I’m telling you what. He was always working. But he was a great father, too, no doubt about it. He said, ’Jeffrey, I know we’re really pushing it here, you know, but...’ and I said, ’Dad, it’s fine. We gotta do what we gotta do here.’”
When the big-box home improvement stores came in, it was “definitely” a challenge and still is, but John Hall never panicked, his son said. In fact, the business has never really changed as a result of the trend.
"Dad said let’s stay the course we’re doing because with your service, and if your pricing is right, you should be able to stay right with them, and so far we have,” Hall said. “I have a lot of people who come in (after visiting big-box stores), they’re disgusted, can’t find anybody to wait on them. It’s personal service. They know us personally and they can get the things they need and we’ll sell them the right product at the right price.”
Shopping at the big-box stores is OK if you know where the item you’re looking for is in the store.
“But if you have to look for it or ask somebody, you’re going to eat up a lot of time. Are you really going to save money? When it comes down to dollars and cents, you probably haven’t.”
Hall said he often checks prices at area big-box home improvement stores and finds that he’s lower on some items and higher on others.
His store carries everything from plumbing and electrical supplies to paints, model trains and a full line of Dickies work clothes. No particular product drives revenue.
"What really drives us is the people who know we have the product on hand right now when they need it. They know they can come here, get what they need and be on their way, kind of a convenience thing. If you got a problem with a product you buy here, we take care of it right away. We don’t make you fill out forms.”
He recalled the time he went into an area big box and asked a teenage employee for help finding something. The kid left and he never saw him again, except for when Hall spotted him trying to avoid him later. That won’t happen at John Hall True Value Hardware.
"This is how I make my living,” he said. “If this fails, I’m out on the street. So when you’re working for someone else in a place like that, they really don’t care. I’ll just go down the street and get another job. I put all my blood, sweat and tears into this place.”
Phyllis still handles the books at age 85, while his wife, Linda, works in the store. His two grown sons aren’t interested in the business.
"I always wanted my kids to do what they wanted to do. Don’t come in here because you feel you have to. I’ll back you whatever you want to do.”
But Hall, 52, said he can’t see himself ever doing anything else.
“I want to keep working as long as I can,” he said. “People come in with problems. My plumbing stuff’s all falling apart, what can we do? So we piece it all apart and put together a new plumbing system. I learned electrical, plumbing, home repair, building, all of that from working in here. I listened to the guys that do it for a living. I’ve had a lot of good customers and they’ve taught me a lot of stuff. I’d ask good questions and they’d explain it to me, so I got a great education, probably better than I could have bought an education.”
It looks like he could have a longtime customer in Goshen resident Samuel Brown, 25, who was in the store Monday looking for a specialized screwdriver to fix the 1981 Yamaha motorcyle he’s restoring.
“It’s just convenient. It’s right downtown,” Brown said of the store. “There’s a better atmosphere. It’s more relaxed. I don’t like dealing with the lines and all the crazy people. I can just come in here and get some real help. I’ve bought locks. Had them re-key some locks. Bought a bunch of screws and washers. I even bought some beer glasses here. It’s just classic. This is the hardware store if you need something and don’t want to drive all the way to a (big box store).”