A sale, an embezzlement and a funeral.
Three of Douglas County’s oldest businesses are facing new challenges in the new year.
Stearns’ Hardware and Gerretsen Building Supply have been in the same families for generations and Roseburg Book and Stationary has been around for more than 100 years, surviving several changes in ownership.
On Dec. 16, Bob Stearns, the third generation of Stearns to live in Oakland and own Stearn’s Hardware, passed away.
“You just make a living, you don’t get wealthy,” his wife Louise Stearns said. “It was his life until he retired. He really enjoyed the store and made a success of it. He made it his life’s work and put everything he had into it. The store has sold many many things and it’s changed over the years. You can’t make it otherwise.”
Bob Stearns handed the business over to his nephew, Bill Stearns, who will continue to operate the hardware store. His sons are not interested in running the business when he passes. Stearn’s Hardware is already a generation beyond most family businesses when it comes to long-term survival.
“It is the only traditional business left in Oakland,” Louise Stearns said. “There were all these traditional businesses at one time and the store is the only one left.”
Research by Boston-based Family Firm Institute revealed that only one-third of all family business are passed on to the next generation successfully. The percentage of family businesses transferred to the third generation falls to only 13 percent.
“There’s just a person or two in the generation who is interested in working there and taking over, and that’s how it goes on,” Louise Stearns said. “I think most of them now, they either have to sell out or do something else because there isn’t anyone interested in taking over. Bill’s boys aren’t interested in taking over.”
Bob Stearns worked with his brother Fay Stearns. Together, they bought the business from their father Edwin Stearns in 1946 who took over from his father and Creed Chenoweth who were two of the three original founders in 1887.
“When Bob came home, instead of going back to college, he decided he’d go into partnership with his brother at the store,” Louise Stearns said. “Bob worked there for 52 years.
Eric Gerretsen, 63, is the third generation to own Gerretsen Building Supply and he also sees the end of the family reign as well. While the store will remain in business, Gerretsen and his three partners have negotiated a sale with Tal Holdings, an eight-store chain with stores in Oregon and Washington.
“As of the fourth of February, we will no longer own Gerretsen Building Supply,” Gerretsen said. “It will still be Gerretsen Building Supply, I’ll still be here. I just let the wave wash over me and I come up dog-paddling. It would have been a big deal in 1950 maybe. There’s people who don’t even know we exist.”
Gerretsen couldn’t release information on the price, but the exchange will happen on Feb. 4. Gerretsen will stay on as an employee as long as he can.
“Tal is probably one of the best ones because they leave the name of the yard the same, the people don’t change, nobody’s changing, nobody’s leaving,” Gerretsen said. “I’ll probably work another 20 or 25 years.”
The business was founded in 1923 by Joe Denn and Eric Gerretsen’s grandfather, William Gerretsen. Eric Gerretsen said Denn left the partnership within the first 10 years.
“We made adjustments,” Gerretsen said. “It’s what we do. Now that we’re Tal, we’ll make some more adjustments. I’m going from an owner of a three-generation to being an employee. I’ll have to take instructions.”
A fire in the store was one of the catalyst’s for the Roseburg Blast in 1959. After that, it moved and then moved again and survived the move-in of big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s.
“It’s not difficult to keep around because what we do and what they do is completely different,” Gerretsen said. “We still grind out the everyday job which is the most important part. The people we do business with don’t want to grab a cart and spend two hours doing what we can do in 20 minutes here.”
In downtown Roseburg, Jason Byers is confident that his store, Roseburg Book and Stationary, is the oldest business and in the oldest building in downtown. He’s only owned it for five years, but he essentially grew up in the aisles.
“I’ve always liked this little store,” Byers said. “When I got done with school, I would walk downtown and wait for (my dad) to get off and I would drive all the business owners downtown nuts by coming into their stores. I grew up in this store just because I insisted I grew up in this store. It was the place you went to get a special gift, a special pen or — the first laser pointer I ever saw was here. It was a huge deal. They had specialty items here that you couldn’t ever get anywhere else.”
During his first year owning the store in 2015, employee Lisa Ann Good was charged with embezzling money. Byers said he still hasn’t recovered from the $36,000 she stole. The trial for Good is set for April 10. To top it off, the store’s Christmas sales were lower than ever before.
“It has slowed down for us quite a bit,” Byers said. “I’ve heard that from all the other merchants on Jackson St. It wasn’t just us. People don’t come downtown. I don’t think people have a clear image of what’s downtown. Roseburg needs to be reintroduced to it’s downtown.”
He said he’s cutting costs wherever he can. When he was a child, the store had 20 employees and “was buzzing,” but now he has seven employees and said he has gone several months without a paycheck at all to make sure his employees are still paid.
“Trying to make changes to a business that’s been around over a century, I definitely put more thought into it,” Byers said. “I love this store. I’m here seven days a week because of it. It’s certainly not for the money, that’s for sure. I bought the store five years ago. It’s been a learning experience for sure. I’ve made my mistakes, I’ll claim that. It takes a lot.”