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REGIONALREPORT Western

It doesn’t keep a Lowe’s profile

By any measure, Wilkes Hardware Co. doesn’t stack up to its one-time crosstown rival. Founded in 1947, the North Wilkesboro store’s competition back then was a place called Lowe’s, which two years later opened a second location, beginning an expansion that would make it the world’s second-largest home-improvement chain. Now based in Mooresville, Lowe’s Cos. had $48.8 billion of sales last year; Wilkes Hardware, somewhere between $330,000 and $370,000. Lowe’s operates more than 1,750 stores across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Wilkes Hardware still has just the one.

But it never lusted after the spotlight. In fact, it avoided it. In a building originally used for processing chickens and turkeys, it was opened by Phil Yates, “a guy very closely associated with the bootleggers in Wilkes County,” says current owner Gerald Lankford, 72, who bought it for about $300,000 in 2006. “He wanted a place where the guys who made the stills would have the materials to build [them], so he started a hardware store and sold pumps, tanks, pipes and tubing.”

The rise of Lowe’s and other chains has made the independent hardware store an endangered species — at least perceptually. If a customer wants a load of lumber or a riding lawnmower, he’ll go to Lowe’s for a better price, Lankford says. “But when a guy needs one bolt, he comes here and doesn’t have to buy the whole pack.” North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson, an electrician, agrees: “I hate to go 15 minutes out of my way and wait.” Lankford’s staff, he adds, “Just git ’er done.” Two of the four have been there for more than 20 years.

The store took a hit during the recession but stayed in the black, Lankford says. It’s the only place around that will cut and thread pipe and has added some fancy new offerings such as swimming-pool chemicals and quartz infrared heaters. Wilkes Hardware also sells homemade barbecue sauce, honey and molasses, and its warmest attraction remains a pot- bellied stove that’s a rendezvous for regulars. The store continues to serve some of its old clientele, though they’re now ex-moonshiners. “Junior Johnson,” Lankford says, “is still a customer.”

86.1% Percentage of U.S. hardware stores that are independently owned, according to the North American Retail Hardware Association.

BOONE — TT electronicsplans to close its factory here by the end of 2012. A spokeswoman says the United Kingdom-based company is moving wire and metal-film production to Mexico. Most of the 143 workers will be laid off, though a few administrative employees may be retained.

ASHEVILLESitel will add 60 workers at its local call center, increasing employment to nearly 600, almost double the workforce it had in 2008. The Nashville, Tenn.-based company needs more employees to serve a financial-services client.

FLETCHERLas Vegas-based Vision Airlines dropped its twice-weekly flights from Asheville Regional Airport to Fort Walton Beach, Fla. The flights represented about 1.5% of the airport’s passenger traffic.

HENDERSONVILLE — Etowah Valley Country Club & Golf Lodge and at least four other western North Carolina golf courses are for sale, a sign of the industry’s struggles. Also for sale are Linville Falls Golf Club, near Marion, Maggie Valley Club & Resort, Springdale Country Club, near Canton, and Red Fox Country Club, near Tryon.

HAZELWOODHaywood Correctional Center will close Nov. 1 because of state budget cuts. A spokeswoman says the center’s 41 employees will be offered jobs at other prisons. Inmates will be transferred to other minimum-security prisons.