Robinsons past will be part of its future

This past summer when I decided to make windows for our cottage porch (to cut down on high winds) the first place I went was to Robinson’s Hardware. Steve Arnott looked at my sketches and we chose the right hardware to hang the things. I’m an optimist, so I was sure I could do this! Every week, after a weekend of solutions-based window building, I’d go back in to see Steve for a solution to the newest problem.

Then I went over to what used to be Robinson’s repair division on Mary Street. Employee Steve LeMay bought the business and later the building and turned Robinson’s into Allmakes as part of the hardware store’s first downsizing move in the late 80’s. There Steve helped out with perfectly measured and cut plexiglass. He too was interested in my project.

This isn’t really any different from my Robinson’s experience as a new homowner in 1973 when I wanted to build my compost location. Harold Ayerst was managing the used appliance sales in the basement and had good solid advice for me in my start-up. This was long before anyone was building those modular, rotating, spinning composters…

There are many people like myself who shop at Robinson’s because when they go in someone says “Hi, Donna” and actually knows who you are. We’ve watched with concern as Sunday hours put pressure on a downtown anchoring store, and with even more concern as Jim and John downsized three years ago to consolidate their stock on the main floor. This year when the building was sold, I was eager to find out what Robinsons was going to do.

Well, good news…When Jim and John Robinson and their loyal staff pack up the contents of Barrie’s oldest hardware store, it will be to initiate a brand new start.

Robinson’s Hardware has been an anchor in Barrie’s downtown since 1923 when a young farmer, Charlie Robinson, moved up from Cookstown and opened a store that would cater to farm families as well as Barrie’s residential folks. Robinsons was in heavy competition for business in those days, and big bins of seed and bags of fertilizer, gardening implements and boating supplies for those using Kempenfelt Bay were housed alongside nails and screws in bulk. Jim Robinson, third generation now to run the store, remembers when it was open on Saturday nights as farm families came to town to socialize and shop. Saturday night was truly a “night on the town.”

Jim and John’s father Alvin Robinson joined his dad in the business in the 30’s. His brother Ralph also joined the Robinsons tradition and the two boys learned from their father the art of retailing. Ralph was the office skill in those days and died tragically early in 1940 at the age of 33. He had a heart attack while sitting at his desk.

Alvin and his wife Verna went on to hire a staff that peaked at 30 people and anyone shopping aat Robinsons in the 50’s and 60’s remembers appliances (new on the top floor, used on the bottom) along with a gardening section that was unrivalled. A full repair service for screen windows and doors, glass windows and doors, a full locksmith department, kitchen appliances, gifts, tools, electrical and home repair supplies… thousands and thousands of items could be found at Robinsons.

John Robinson continued the family tradition in his late teens and joined his parents in the store, to be partnered with his younger brother Jim in the 70’s. Jim brought to the hardware operation a year’s agricultural studies at university, and a background in the construction industry. Jim is celebrating a quarter-century soon, and John is senior to that.

So, Robinson’s Hardware is moving. Jim and John have leased 6,000 square feet of space in a plaza at the corner of Blake and Steel Streets and east enders will be absolutely thrilled that they have a hardware store on their doorstep. The location gives Jim and John a generous outdoor area so they will offer an increased line of home and garden equipment and supplies.

The move is challenging the Robinson boys to keep part of the history of their store while moving it from an old building to a relaltively new facility. The entrance is certainly going to reflect the stability of our history, commented Jim when I touched base with him this week.

“People are responding positively to our move,” he says. “We knew that some of our customers were from the East End but when we say where we’re moving, we’re discovering that a lot more are located there.

“The downtown businesses will miss us because they could run in for extension cords and lightbulbs and spray paint etc. We may locate a subsidiary office back in the downtown core once we get settled in the new place.”

There are 11 employees who will be involved in this move, though only five are full time people. When the store closes downtown on Sunday, January 3 staff will be packing and re-stocking in improved shelving with more efficient spacing and getting ready for a grand re-opening on Thursday, January14.

Will it change? “We’ll be carrying a lot more. We’re keeping all our departments but there will be a bit of a shift… less giftware, more lawn & garden with our big outdoor area. We’re introducing a pet food line because the pet food store at the East End Plaza has closed. We’ll be doing full locksmith service, plus screen and glass repairs. Steve Arnott (18 years of service), Bob Hill (10 years) and Donna Wallace (who’s anchored the office for 16 years) will all be moving along with John and Jim. Their familiar faces will make new walls feel comfortable. And part timers will be pencilling in their shifts as the Robinsons adjust to new operating hours and square footages. Hours will be 8:30 am to 6 pm Thursday, Fridays till 8 pm and Saturdays till 5. Sundays will be 10 am to 3:30 pm.

The challenge for Jim and John? “People want us to be what we’ve always been… a reflection of times past. New people want us to be price competitive and brand new. We’ll try to be both.”

See you there!