Siesta Key Hardware has retained its mom-and-pop charm, even though it is a far cry from the lone-cash-register store it once was. This year marks 40 years since Wally Von Atzinger and his business partner, Bill Podewitz, established the store in 1972.
Von Atzinger, a natural handyman, bought the store, located at 215 Canal Road in Siesta Key Village, from Podewitz after its first year of operation. He later passed it on to his daughter, Cheryl Duley, and her husband, John, who proposed to Cheryl in the store. The store holds decades of memories for the Duleys.
“My dad always taught me, ‘Find something you would want to do with your life that you would do for free,’ and the hardware store is something I would have done for free,” Duley says.
Von Atzinger’s wife, Nora, did the bookkeeping while his daughter helped run the store.
“We weren’t supposed to know what we were doing,” Duley says. “I mean, what the heck do I know about plumbing and electrical or installing a sprinkler system?”
When she first started working at the store, she absorbed all of her father’s handyman knowledge like a sponge.
“I used to just follow my dad around and listen to him wait on everybody in the first year or so,” she says.
She remembers a simpler Siesta Key, with chatty workmen eating lunches at the front of their shop.
“It had tremendous character,” says Duley. “There were a lot of stores in the Village, and sometimes they would be open, sometimes they wouldn’t, there would be, like, ‘Gone Fishing’ signs on the doors.”
Neighbors and customers quickly became friends who would bring their household questions to the store. Duley remembers one neighbor bringing in a broken toilet and another who’s broken lawnmower filled the store with black smoke.
“The same workmen would come in everyday, sometimes four to five times a day,” says Duley. “I think that’s what made it so special, too — you don’t get that at Home Depot — they really became friends.”
David Patton, a Siesta Key local, remembers riding his bike to the store, where he charged supplies to his father’s account.
“Wally was a character. He was fun-loving and funny,” Patton says. “If you needed something, he tried to get it for you. It might take him a week or 10 days, but he would get it for you.”
Patton still rides his bike to the store but makes charges to his own account.
The Duleys sold the store in 2005 after a bad storm season and after Duley’s parents and grandmother died.
“The store kind of defined who I was and I didn’t know what I would do next,” says Duley. “I just decided not to look back.”
The next chapter
Siesta Key Hardware was passed through a few hands before its current owners, Jim and Patricia Hillier, bought it in 2006. Jim Hillier had a background as a racing sailboat captain; submarine technology engineer at Johns Hopkins; designer of printing software with his brother; and as an engineer at Mote Marine Aquarium.
“My background is anything but retail,” Jim Hillier says, “but, man, what an adventure.”
The Hilliers have kept the mom-and-pop business model but have made a few modern tweaks. Patricia Hillier revamped the store’s interior design with beach-themed signs and a new tile mosaic store logo.
Jim Hillier added a computer-based ordering system, organized the inventory and installed a pricing formula to keep up with product prices.
“We saw a lot of opportunity and, still, we work to preserve that little old-fashioned feel with a tropical hint,” Jim Hillier says.
Patton is still a loyal customer. He knows that the Hilliers have almost everything that the supercenters carry.
“It’s so convenient; why would you get in your vehicle and drive half-an-hour to 40 minutes to get somewhere?” he asks. “Do you know how many stop lights there are between here and Home Depot?”
And, just like in the old days, customers soon became friends. The Hilliers see familiar faces everywhere they go. Jim Hillier has nicknamed the island “Mayberry Key,” based on the 1960s “The Andy Griffith Show” because of its close-knit community feel. “Everybody knows each other and we have our characters,” Jim Hillier says.
Although Duley doesn’t look back, she is happy to see what the Hilliers have done with the store.
“I just think it’s fabulous and it’s still going, and that the Hilliers are doing well with it,” she says. “They seem to be loving it as much as we did, which is really great.”
The Hilliers celebrated 40 years of the store with the community Wednesday, Dec. 12, with hotdogs, cake, drinks and prizes.
“That’s what America is about, mom and pop and all of these little stores,” Patton says.