ANNAPOLIS — As Marge Stevens worked the cash register, her eyes reddened with tears as the 84-year-old shop owner told customers the news.
After 53 years of doing business beside Annapolis’ harbor, Stevens Hardware will close at the end of this month, after years of sagging sales.
Some residents say shuttering the business will end an era for downtown. The district has shifted from a place people went to shop for groceries, bait and household staples to one where they dine on surf and turf and buy crab-embellished shot glasses.
Since 1870, three families have continuously operated a hardware store at the Stevens building on the corner of Dock and Randall streets.
Over the half-century the Stevens family has owned the 6,000-square-foot, two-story building, the focus has varied from major appliances to hunting and trapping goods to marine gear.
Downtown merchants and neighbors have often made trips to the store when bad weather was on the horizon. The business has always kept a plentiful stock of snow shovels.
Judy Schwartzberg — who, with her husband, owns The Big Cheese on Randall Street — said the hardware store is sort of the last bastion of downtown.
“This is about losing a fixture that you took for granted was always going to be there,” she said.
Mike Stevens, Marge’s grandson, said the store was at its financial peak in 2007, but sales have declined by 10 to 15 percent every year since. The business never rebounded from the recession, he said.
This year’s boat shows, which usually generate a lot of revenue for the store because vendors often need tools, were the slowest they’ve seen, the family said.
“It’s been inevitable,” said Mark Stevens, Marge’s son, who took over the business in 1988. “I’ve had my little cry, my little moment, but life goes on.”
Bud Stevens, Marge’s husband, who died of melanoma 16 years ago, bought the property in 1960 on a handshake. Today, state tax assessors value it at $1.42 million.
The Victorian-era brick building is literally full of history. The owners still use relics from the past, such as a hulking lift on a pulley system and a man-sized safe. Even the upstairs office refrigerator is a mid-century holdover.
The Dock Street store has started reducing prices to get rid of the inventory. The family also owns Stevens Tools at 40 Hudson St., which will remain open. That location caters more to contractors.
Marge still works at the downtown hardware store nearly every day. She’s looking forward to learning computer skills in her retirement, but otherwise isn’t sure how she’ll occupy her time.
“I’ve always been so busy,” she said. “Now I see what a lot of my friends have gone through. It’s lonely to be retired.”
The family-owned hardware store, once commonplace, is a dying breed.
Stevens Hardware is a member-owner store in the True Value cooperative. About 15 years ago, according to HighBeam Business industry research, True Value was a $4.3 billion company serving more than 10,000 independently owned retail outlets.
But as of last year, the co-op had half the number of members and had declined to $1.8 billion in revenue, likely because it struggled to keep pace with big-box competitors, HighBeam Business said.
“What is sweeping this country right now? I mean these hardware stores in all these little towns are going out of business,” Mark said. “When I look at it in terms of how our society is, I don’t think it’s for the best. It’s unfortunate.”
The family doesn’t have any prospective tenants or plans for the property yet. The decision to close is still too fresh, they said.
Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen said he was sad to learn about the closure when he stopped in to buy some light bulbs.
“Marge and her late husband have been part of the fabric of our town,” he said. “People like me who grew up in Annapolis grew up going to see them, and to me their closing is going to be a real loss.”
Their departure may be one of many changes coming to City Dock. Some Annapolis officials are discussing a redevelopment of the harbor area that will draw a broader mix of businesses, including hotels, condominiums and a museum.
If and until then, Mike hopes customers will visit Stevens in the next three weeks.
“I don’t want those people to think it’s going to be awkward to say goodbye,” he said. “This last month should really be a celebration of what we’ve been doing for 53 years.”