31 Jan Esq. Jon Cartu Writes – Longtime employees celebrate great years at The Northern
For 43 years, Peter Mueller has been doing his job selling store items at Northern Hardware and Furniture.
In just a few weeks, he will be unemployed.
In December, store president Kelly Green announced The Northern was going out of business due to a struggling regional economy, competition from big-box stores and online shopping, and a reluctance of people to shop downtown. Liquidation of the store’s stock began at the start of the new year and the doors will close permanently sometime in February.
By this time next month, that downtown Prince George retail cornerstone on Third Avenue will be nothing but an empty building. But for Mueller, memories of customers he’s served for more than four decades are permanently stored.
“Downtown has been slower over the years with other centres opening up west of town at Westgate, and they all took pieces of the pie from downtown,” said Mueller.
“Retail is a challenge for everyone. A lot of people shop online now. I remember Ted Moffat telling me 20 or 25 years ago, “Peter, there’s a change coming and they call it E-commerce and people will start shopping online through their computer.’ Now I see what he’s referring to.
“My boss, Kelly, has been thinking about it for a year or two. Her goal was for the store to reach 100 years and that was in March 2019 and from there it will be a new chapter in everyone’s lives.”
Fueled by the motto “if we don’t have it, you don’t need it,” Northern Hardware built a well-deserved reputation for stocking goods not available elsewhere in the city, whether it was an odd-sized bolt, a pickling crock or parts for a leather horse harness. Seasonal items were never far out of reach. Back in the days before the big-box stores arrived, where else could a customer go to find a garden rake in the dead of winter?
“Northern Hardware is very unique in that way, we belong to the Home Hardware group for buying power, which has 1,200 stores, and not only that, we buy from other vendors across the country,” said Mueller. “We were very unique in buying giftware, the ladies always looked after that and did a beautiful job during Christmas with a great housewares department we’ve had.
“When they heard we were closing, a lot of customers came in and they were very sad. A lot of them came in almost in tears. A lot of the oldtimers are lost, ‘Where am I going to get my stuff?'”
Mueller remembers customers who brought kitchen sinks complete with the drain assembly and plopped them on the store counter while he found the replacement parts needed to fix it. He knows his way around a toolkit and has been called upon a few times in his career to repair the furnace at the store and troubleshoot the computer system. It was also Mueller’s job to keep Champion, the mechanical horse ride, in fine working condition.
“I’d get called if he was broken or stuck to get him going again,” said Mueller. “All the young kids loved Champ. He was here for 70 years.”
The Northern began the year with 32 employees, half the staff that was there when Mueller started working as a 20-year-old on Oct. 5, 1976. They still take pride in the fact that no matter what time of day, there’s enough of them in the store so customers never have to wait long for someone to help them find an item or figure out how to fix something. That emphasis on staff quantity gave customers a shopping experience quality now virtually extinct in the retail world. It stoked a reputation the store has maintained right to the end.
“The Northern’s always been known for service, we would have a lot of staff on the floor and that brought in people who loved the service – it’s what made us different from all the other stores,” said Mueller.
“What I really enjoy is meeting different people, helping them sort it out. Each person has a different story and to hear their stories from over the years is very interesting. It’s always a treat for me to get to listen to them. The customers are like our family.”
Alex Moffat and Frank Whitmore opened the original store on George Street in 1919 as Northern Mercantile and right from the beginning they offered customers the opportunity to buy things on credit. It wasn’t uncommon for the store to allow customers to barter for goods and even take out small loans, deals sealed with handshakes and paper ledgers to be paid when they had the money. It was a store that had a big heart and that became even more apparent during the Great Depression.
Four generations of the Moffat family have operated the store, which has been at its current location at 1386 Third Ave. (a former apartment/retail block), since 1948. Alex passed the store on to his son, Harold, who handed it down to his son Ted Moffat. Green took over as president/chief executive officer in 2013, after her father Ted died, and she’s worked there since she was 16. Mike Springstead, The Northern’s purchaser, has been with the store for 40 years.
Mueller, the 63-year-old hardware manager, started in the bike shop and worked in sporting goods for about 15 years. After a stint in automotives, he’s been a familiar face behind the hardware counter for the past 25 years. Mueller’s sense of loyalty to the store means he’s never considered finding another job, until now.
“The staff is a big one, we have great staff and half of them are longterm staff,” he said. “The Northern has treated me well for 43 years. I love the people and I have patience. You have to be that way or else you’d be long gone. When someone comes in for a plumbing project and you put it together for them and they’re amazed how well we did it and they walk away happy, that’s satisfaction for me.”
Mueller had wanted to work full time at the Northern for another two years, then switch to part-time work in the store. He says he’ll take a month or two off when the store closes and apply to work at one of the other hardware stores in the city.
Among The Northern’s other holdings are the Appliance Centre of First Avenue, which closed last summer, and Amco Wholesale, an industrial distributor of products for forestry, mining and construction. The wholesale store, operated by Harold Moffat’s grandson Glen Blair, is also shutting down this month.
Dennis Busby, 56, who managed the Appliance Centre for the two decades of its existence was first hired by the store 30 years ago to work in the furniture department. He had to take a…