Walking around Gibb Stuarts Home Hardware on the second last day of trading was a strange experience. With staff milling around, shelves nearly empty and the odd customer rummaging through the last of the stock, the atmosphere was a little sombre.
I overhear an older gentleman talking to Katherine (Owner Sandy’s daughter) about the closure. He uses phrases such as ‘an institution’, ‘one of kind’, ‘exceptional service’ – sentiments that have now been echoed multiple times on social media. Quite simply, The Gibb Stuart family, their store and their staff are woven into the fabric of Bridge of Weir and Kilmacolm village life.
Later, taking to owner Sandy Gibb Stuart, I start to unravel some of the stories bound up with this family’s business which has existed in these villages for over 142 years. I ask Sandy – who started working at the store aged 11 – how he feels about the last days of trading.
“It’s bittersweet really. I’m sad that I couldn’t hand it over to the next generation. Katherine could have taken it over, but there’s just is no guarantee that it would be as successful as it once was. It feels like the right time to move on.” He says ruefully.
Despite the closure, the Gibb Stuarts’ legacy in hardware will live on through their part in the creation of the Home Hardware brand. To discover how we got here, I am led down a path that encompasses the major upheavals of much of the 20th and 21th century.
In the 1880s, Sandy’s great grandfather William Gibb Stuart opened the first Gibb Stuart’s Hardware Shop in Kilmacolm. It operated ironmongery, painting and drysaltery. When Sandy’s grandfather, also named William Gibb Stuart, but known as Wullie, took over the business in the early to mid 20th century he concentrated on painting and decorating and set up shop in Bridge of Weir. Despite struggling with severe war wounds from the First World War, Wullie grew Gibb Stuart’s into a very successful business – based then, where Shimla Cottage is now. Having survived the tail end of Second World War, his son Hugh returned, albeit with thoughts of emigrating to Australia. This was not to be. When Sandy’s Grandfather Wullie became ill through his injuries, Hugh and his brother James took the helm of the business which they then steered very successfully into the hardware sector. The hardware shop – grew through the early 20th century with Hugh and his son Sandy in charge. After a lengthy planning process, the business moved into their most recent premises where Sandy and his family have been working since the early 90s.
In the late 1970s, the wholesale trade in Glasgow drastically declined due, in part, to the rise of chain megastores such as B&Q and Texas Homecare coupled with the 1970 economic crisis. When one of the last remaining wholesalers went bust, Hugh Gibb Stuart, Jim Ferguson – owner of Wright’s Home Hardware – and another half a dozen hardware retailers took the initiative and bought up their cut price stock and began selling it off.
Following a study tour of the US by Hugh and Jim they decided on a radical approach. In the US it was common practise for the retailers to own the wholesalers. The wholesaler was to be set up as a non-profit making operation – making enough money just to cover its costs. The money was to be made in the shops. As Home Hardware was already an established name in the US, Hugh, Jim and Co. Decided to take the name under license from the US. The Scottish ‘Home Hardware’ brand was born. It has gone from strength to strength and now the brand has 50 or so shops stretching from the north of Scotland to the North of England.
I asked Sandy what made his store stand out from chain stores such as B&Q etc.
“Our main aim was to give great customer service. This was the big one. Great customer service, a great selection of products and a competitive price – and I think we achieved all three. The problem came with the advent of the internet. When Amazon and others began to dictate the price of everything it was a race to the bottom.”
The pandemic was to throw another curveball when falling sales were temporarily buoyed. They were seen as an essential store. As people threw themselves into home improvements like never before, the store was in high demand. This was a glimmer of hope.
But just as quick as it took off, it disappeared. At the end of the pandemic people went back out into the world, or moved again to online shopping. Around this time, Sandy also lost his father, Hugh. The double whammy was a big blow to the family.
“It was kind of the last straw. The joy had sort of… Disappeared.” He tells me.
Although endings are sad, they are also a chance to look back … and forwards,
“But I really have enjoyed it. I am lucky to be someone who has loved to get out of bed and go to work. Not everyone gets that. One of the advantages of owning your own business is if you have a good idea and you’ve got the money behind it, you can really go for it and that’s a great feeling.”
He credits all of the staff that he’s had the pleasure of working with over the years who added greatly to the reputation the shops have gained.
I asked him what he will enjoy in retirement, he says,
“I play the drums in a country band (called Delta Smoak), so I get to do more of that. And you’ve heard of ‘cobblers weans’. Got all the tools but no time? We’ve got a lot of DIY that needs doing that we’ve never had time for! But mainly I want to spend time with my wife Christine. We’ve got a trip to Australia planned to see relatives.”
Sandy is a soft-spoken man, clearly proud of his heritage, but evidently tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit are qualities that have been passed down through generations of Gibb Stuarts. It is fitting that he finally gets to go to Australia – after all, had life turned out differently, he may have been born there!
Despite the closure of Gibb Stuart’s Home Hardware, the Home Hardware brand lives will live on in Bridge of Weir with the opening of Wright’s Home Hardware at the old British Legion. It’s time once again to get out and support your local hardware store.
By Rona Simpson