Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Whoever named the "Key Shop" at McGuckin Hardware was being reductive. That department not only cuts keys but also fixes lamps, repairs screens, and sharpens mower blades. Better yet, its staff will help a mechanically inclined middle school kid design and build a skateboard ramp, as well as a mechanism for attaching a blender to the inside of a locker so he can make smoothies for lunch.

That kid was Daniel Haarburger, now a senior at Stanford with two successful Kickstarter-funded products under his belt. Haarburger grew up in Boulder, Colorado, wandering wide-eyed through the gadget-thick aisles of McGuckin and wangling help from employees like they were his own personal shop-class instructors. Back home recently to visit family, Haarburger started developing a device that helps people with broken bones to walk. "When I started prototyping, I went back to McGuckin," Haarburger says. "And of course they jumped in and gave me a hand."

Boulder is a funky, outdoorsy city that is equal parts beauty and brains. At its creative core is a 60-year-old hardware store. McGuckin Hardware, in a shopping center near the University of Colorado, is a 60,000-square foot Shangri-La for anyone looking for a part, some expertise, or a brainstorming partner. Families rely on McGuckin for their grills and camping gear; contractors buy their tools there. But inventors come, too, for help developing and marketing products. Professors and engineers bring their technical challenges. Science-fair participants seek assistance with projects. Seniors drop by to chat with employees they've known for decades.

When a retailer accepts every customer challenge as its own, it can become a nexus of the community. That is what's happened to McGuckin. "We are not so much profit-minded as service-minded," says Dave Hight, who joined the business started by his father-in-law, Bill McGuckin, in 1960 and took it over when McGuckin died six years later. "We've built a real good thing for the city. It's why we're still here."

In fact McGuckin has outlasted numerous national players in Boulder, including Sears, Gibson, and Montgomery Ward, which have all come and gone during the company's lifetime. Home Depot is still around, but when it moved in, McGuckin didn't flinch. Home Depot was the one that had to adapt, imitating McGuckin's dog-friendly policy in this canine-crazy town. (McGuckin's sales associates frequently stow dog treats in the pockets of their iconic green aprons.)

"Many people, including myself, use McGuckin for parts and pieces, but also for knowledge about how one might do things and connections to other people in the industry," says Rick Case, founder of Nite Ize, a Boulder company that makes and markets everything from LED flashlights to specialty shoelaces. "They are not just a hardware store. They are such a resource for this town."

Breathing life into the supply chain

Boulder was a small town turning into a big one in 1955, when Bill McGuckin opened his 3,500-foot store in the city's first shopping center. An avid outdoorsman, he planned to specialize in hunting and fishing gear. Hight, who had married McGuckin's daughter, Dee, five years earlier, suggested a hardware department. As construction in the area boomed, the store supplied the union carpenters and the new homeowners with tools and materials. The family plowed every penny back into the business, constantly adding inventory and people. Today the store has 260 employees and 18 departments, ranging from outdoor furniture to housewares to automotive products to toys.

"We built the business on customer call. If it's an item they want, we always put it in stock," says Hight. "I wound up supporting practically all the family-owned wholesalers in the state of Colorado and several out of state." Those wholesalers could then supply small retailers in other towns, a result that gives Hight considerable satisfaction. (Hight has been approached several times about expanding McGuckin Hardware to other cities. He says he'd prefer that other families start their own versions and offers to teach them everything he knows for free.)

Hight also wanted a robust wholesale channel for the tiny manufacturers he championed. When attending trade shows, "I wrote down the products I thought would sell and gave a copy to my wholesalers," says Hight. "I would say, 'you stock this and we will buy it from you.' That way you are helping out that factory." Hight's enthusiasm for manufacturing led him to visit factories all around the country; sometimes he would stay as long as a week. "Once you see what they go through to make a product,"he says, "you really don't have to apologize [to a customer ]for the price." (Products at McGuckin's sometimes cost more than at the big boxes, but the company doesn't compete on price.)

Hight, 85, still spends four to six hours a day strolling the floor, greeting customers by name. "A lot of people just come in to talk, to me or someone else they like in the organization," he says. "I could be going to a funeral a day with all our old-time customers who are passing. But their kids and grandkids are trading with us."

Ask them anything

Hight's son Barry now runs the store. Barry's wife and son also work there. The service ethos remains: McGuckin fields as many as 100 associates on the floor at one time and employs six to eight "floating managers" who personally guide shoppers with long lists around the store to collect everything.

Employees aren't just well stocked; they are also well informed. Most are veterans of a trade: plumbers, electricians, builders, mechanics, even a few retired university professors. Everyone knows everyone else's area of expertise, and if one sales associate can't answer a question, he or she walks the customer over to someone who can. "We are like a human encyclopedia," says Barry.

Consider, for example, Robert Alispach, an 18-year employee who works in the paint department. Alispach is routinely sought out by Boulder's community of magicians, who know his background as a conjurer in Los Angeles. "We don't sell magic tricks here, but McGuckin is one of the greatest magic shops you can get," he says. "We have all kinds of little gadgets and weird items from different departments. A magician looks at them and gets ideas for different ways to do things."

McGuckin contributes parts and expertise to all kinds of projects, many bubbling up from the university or high-tech companies that swarm here. Among the better known inventions to incorporate McGuckin advice is the Gamow bag, a pressurized mechanism that treats altitude sickness. (The bag uses a type of valve recommended by Barry.) A sales associate helped the crew of the Sylvester Stallone movie Cliffhanger figure out how to drill into rock without electricity.

The inventor's friend

Amateur tinkerers and inventors are especially welcome at McGuckin, and often get more than technical advice. The store's buyers are trade-show habitués, and they cheerfully shepherd inventors through the process of getting into those events and setting up their booths.

Dave and Barry Hight go even further, personally introducing inventors to potential distribution or marketing partners. Nite Ize, which sells both its own products and products on which it collaborates, has brought to market several items referred by the Hights. Those include Steelie, a magnetic car phone mount, and the Inka Mobil, a combination pen and stylus that can write anywhere. "We've created business relationships with lots of inventors and entrepreneurs we met through referrals from McGuckin," says Case. "Dave and Barry have been on the floor interacting with people forever. They know everybody."

When the circle closes, many products McGuckin has midwifed join the store's 200,000-item inventory. During his visit, Haarburger was chuffed to come across one of his early products, the Handleband, wich attaches a smartphone to a bike. "It's one thing to see your product at Walmart and Target," he says. "Going into the childhood store I loved and seeing the Handleband on the wall--that made it for me." 

Published on: Apr 6, 2015