Ed Quillen: Remembering an old, venerable local business
December 11, 2009
The news came as a shock, but not a surprise. The Gambles store, a mainstay of downtown Salida, Colo., for more than 60 years, was going out of business.
At heart it was a hardware store, but it sold nearly everything you could imagine. Every time our local newspaper ran one of those “best of” surveys, Gambles won “best retailer.” I look around my house: The desk lamp by my computer came from Gambles. So did our washer, dryer, dishwasher and kitchen stove. We sleep on a bed from Gambles, store our clothes in dressers from Gambles, and eat at a kitchen table from Gambles.
In other words, whatever we needed, we looked for it first at Gambles. Once I made the mistake of buying a lawnmower at Wal-Mart. The bag that caught the clippings fell apart after a year or two. Wal-Mart, of course, didn’t carry just the bag and wouldn’t order one for me. The next mower came from Gambles, and when it refused to start one afternoon a year later, a store employee came by and fixed it – at no charge.
Or ponder this, which struck me as miraculous. The heating element in the oven of the electric stove in our rental house died. The stove, which I’d bought used somewhere, was at least 15 years old. But it was a Coronado, the one-time Gambles appliance brand.
So, with fingers crossed in the hope that I would not have to get a new stove, I went down to Gambles. No, Coronado didn’t carry parts that old. But wait a minute: Some guy up in Buena Vista had ordered a heating element a few years ago and never picked it up. Out of the back room came a heating element, and it fit perfectly. That never happens in real life – except it did.
Another wonderful happenstance occurred when our kitchen-sink faucet began to leak beyond hope of repair. I went to Gambles to get a new one, dreading the prospect of spending the next hour or two cramped under the sink, knowing I’d never find a plumber on such short notice. But as I was paying for the fixture, I discovered that the guy in line behind me was George Argys, a plumber. And he said he could come right over and install it. Those coincidences – or miracles – just seem to happen in small-town stores.
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When an appliance died beyond repair, we’d walk the six blocks down to Gambles and pick out a new one. That afternoon, the new one would be delivered and installed, the old one hauled away. And if times were tight, and we needed two or three months to finish paying for the new one, that was fine, too.
That’s real service, and it was just as good inside the store. On one of my last visits before the closing announcement, I had a problem with the door on our wood-burning stove, a 1979 Vermont Castings Resolute. On his fall visit, the chimney sweep had replaced the gaskets that made the door airtight. But the new gaskets were larger than the old ones because they hadn’t been compressed by use; therefore, the door wouldn’t shut tight. The sweep warned me about this, told me to wait for a fire or two to give the metal a chance to expand and contract. Once it did, I could then adjust the latch.
But when I tried, the adjusting screw just wouldn’t move. I took the door to Gambles; they laid it on the counter and fiddled with it for half an hour, eventually finding a metric Allen wrench that would turn the adjustment bolt. I spent 48 cents to buy the wrench.
Other locals could tell similar stories. We joked that as our downtown changed, shifting from hardware stores and pharmacies to T-shirt shops and art galleries, there would always be Gambles, the one place where you could buy real stuff.
The store had been in the same family since it opened in 1947, and it was run by brothers Bill and Bob Cook. They put it up for sale a couple of years ago, but got no serious offers. It was modern in the sense that there were barcode scanners. But it was un-modern in other ways; the aisles were narrow and crowded, and the lighting wasn’t the best. That didn’t bother longtime locals, but you could understand how someone moving here from Home Depot territory might feel uncomfortable.
Bob, the older brother, said he was ready to retire, and if they couldn’t sell the store, they’d close out the merchandise and then sell or lease the real estate. When I saw him at the store on the first day of the going-out-of-business sale, I told him, “This feels more like a wake than a sale.” He agreed, but said, “It’s time.” I can’t argue with that. I do wish him and his brother well, but damn, I’m going to miss their store.