catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 9 :: 2006.05.05 — 2006.05.19


Nuts and bolts and conversation

A photo of Dale Ter Haar in his hardware store

What is the story of your family and your vocation before you purchased South Park Hardware?

I was raised in the small town of Rock Valley, Iowa. I met my wife Nancy (Van Milligan) at Dordt College. Nancy grew up on a farm near Lansing, Illinois, and so it was to this area that we moved upon graduation. We have four children: Jacob, age 15, is a freshman at Illiana Christian High in Lansing; Hannah and Adam, age 10, attend Calvin Christian School in South Holland. Rebekah, also age 10 (yes, they are triplets) is part of the special education program in the local public school district.

After graduating from college in 1987, I worked for fifteen years for Ace Hardware, Corporation. Most of this time I worked out of the corporate offices in Oak Brook, Illinois, which is about an hour commute from South Holland. Prior to the birth of Hannah, Adam and Rebekah, I was pursuing a career in the area of Supply Chain Management. This involved a fair amount of travel as I was in the international purchasing division of Ace. The birth of triplets and Rebekah’s health problems changed my priorities somewhat, so at that time I moved out of the international division and into a position that required much less travel. My final two years at Ace, I transferred to their paint manufacturing facility in Matteson, which further reduced my travel time and time away from home.

Why did you decide to purchase a store in South Holland? Why the hardware store, in particular?

The answer to the question as to why I chose to purchase a hardware store in South Holland may seem obvious from my previous answer. My interest in this was peeked earlier on, however. As a kid growing up in Rock Valley, I worked for about six years in high school and then college at one of the local hardware stores (at one point, our town of 2,500 had three of them). Naturally, I suppose, I had grown to view those formative years rather nostalgically. I enjoyed working at the store. I really enjoyed working with the public. In a small town, you knew your customers. You knew where they lived, what they did for a living, whom they were related to, etc. This is something I missed at the corporate level in the big city. I also missed the hands on hardware stuff, the problem-solving, and the more physical nature of the work.

Why South Holland? South Holland was now my hometown. In 1988, Nancy and I chose to buy our first house in South Holland because it offered small town benefits. Our home was two blocks from our church, and one block from Calvin Christian School, where we knew we would eventually send our kids. Many friends from college and Nancy’s friends from high school lived in the area, as well. Even a few of my own high school classmates now called South Holland home. Although change had already begun, South Holland was still a Dutch community. Three Christian Reformed churches, three Reformed Church of America congregations, a Protestant Reformed church and True Dutch church called South Holland home and were bursting at the seams on Sunday morning. We were among friends.

Providentially, our first home was also only a block away from the local hardware store. As the owner of an old house that needed much upkeep and upgrading, I frequented Brouwers’ often. At some point several years back, Clarence Brouwers and I began discussing the possibility of me buying the store when he decided to retire. The opportunity finally presented itself in April of 2003.

I add the following information parenthetically: By this point the community had changed quite a bit. A very high percentage of the Dutch families had left South Holland for Indiana and the far southwest suburbs. I was serving as school board president at the time at Calvin Christian School and we were feeling the pain of this migration. Our enrollment numbers had declined from a peak of around 700 back in the 70s to around 250 students. There was talk of moving the school south to follow the Dutch migration. As president, the task fell to me to argue that this was not a Reformed idea and that our goal ought to be to share the blessings of our Reformed heritage with the new ethnic groups now among us. This idea prevailed and the society voted to amend the constitution to allow greater participation from non-Reformed members in an effort to add diversity to our organization. Unfortunately, the steady migration continued at this point and probably accelerated.

I would be lying if I said that the fact that the community was changing?and now more rapidly?did not affect my deliberations to buy the hardware store. Here was the opportunity I had long dreamed of and planned for, but was I willing to put my money where my mouth was and commit a very large part of my personal resources to a business in a changing community? To avoid overstating the case here, I must add that if I didn’t think I could reverse the negative sales trends at the store, I would not have made the decision to buy the store. But my conscience would not have been clear if I would have allowed the uncertainty of a changing community to alter my decision.

How did your immediate family, your extended family and your friends respond to the news that you planned to purchase the hardware store in South Holland?

My wife and I discussed this decision for a very long time. To get Nancy to endorse this decision took a good deal of persuasion, and rightfully so. I was leaving a secure job for the not-so-secure realm of self-employment and incurring a good deal of debt to do so. This decision was about more than just my career, however. It was also designed to enable me to be close to home to assist more with the care of Rebekah, whose condition requires a great deal of constant care and supervision. Operating a business within walking distance of our home enabled me to do things I couldn’t from miles away. For instance, it provided the opportunity to take her to the store with me when she was without nursing care. So with all this considered, together we decided to take the plunge.

I think our friends were generally excited for us, and wished us well. I recall one of our friends, who is very successful in his job in Chicago, admitted a bit of envy to see me doing this. I’m not sure why, but it made me feel like I was making the right decision.

My parents, who live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have always been very supportive of this idea. My mother in particular always encouraged me to pursue this route. She would periodically send encouraging news clips or other tidbits of information regarding the challenges and rewards of entrepreneurship. A few weeks after we bought the store my brothers helped me with a little remodeling.

What are your goals and hopes for the future of the store and of the South Holland community?

My hopes and goals for the store mirror my hopes for the village. I hope for community. I want to be able to say 25 years from now, “This is my town.” I want my store to thrive in an ethnically diverse community that is itself thriving. I want to know my customers by name, to know who their kids are, if and where they go to church, some of their likes and dislikes. I want this community to retain some of the strong characteristics that have been gifted to it by a strong Reformed heritage: strong families, strong churches, safe streets, strong and lasting friendships. I hope that the Dutch who have up to now been the primary benefactors of this Reformed heritage, have the fortitude to share it, and the wherewithal to understand that it is not their ethnicity that sets them apart, but that it is their worldview.

What are some other businesses in your community that contribute to your vision for your store and for South Holland?

The primary contributor to my vision is not other businesses, but the strong leadership of our Village President. Don DeGraff leads with a Reformed perspective. Don has not flinched in the face of dramatic challenges. He has built a diverse and unified leadership team while preserving the strength and character of the community.

As part of his vision, the village has initiated a redevelopment effort that aims to restore main street and create a vibrant and distinctive downtown district. My store is located in the heart of this redevelopment. The plans call for new homes, new shops, and a new train station that will connect us to Chicago. The culmination of this vision will be a community of people connected to each other and connected to the great city of Chicago.

What resources influence your thinking about community and your hardware store’s role in South Holland?

My primary sources of inspiration come from the books I read. I’m not sure exactly when I became so keenly aware of the concept of community. I believe this happened over time as I witnessed the decimation of our traditional community by the steady migration of our friends and acquaintances. Incidentally, the fact that none of my immediate family lives nearby may have contributed to my sense of loss, since our friends and acquaintances were the closest people to us, who lived in close proximity.

As I struggled with a reformed response to all this I found direction in Abraham Kuyper’s Stone Lectures and several commentaries on his notion of a Christian worldview. One good book in particular is a collection of essays edited by Luis E. Lugo, called Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for the Twenty-First Century.

Several years ago I came across the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam. This book caused me to realize that this loss of community was not unique to South Holland, but has been going on all over America since the 1960s. This book in particular gave me confidence to discuss the issue publicly and privately.

Another enlightning book is Dutch Chicago, A History of Hollanders in the Windy City, by Robert P. Swierenga. Reading this book instilled a sense of envy for the strong community ties that our immigrant ancestors once shared with each other.

On the other hand, the book The Old Neighborhood by Ray Suarez paints an entirely different picture of the decline of these communities in the 1970s:

There was constant talk during those years: Who was going? Who was staying? I think it made me cynical beyond my ears. People would say, “We are not moving! We are not going! We are staying here forever!” Then they’d move at night! When the chips were down they would leave.

Reading this book I wonder if the outcome will be any different this time. Have we changed at all? Will we be able to overcome our fear of those “not like us” this time, and stick around. Our response begs the question: What’s more important to us, being Dutch, or being Reformed?

Recently, I have become a student of New Urbanism, as I ponder the role of my hardware store and the property it occupies in the midst this community change and the redevelopment that is about to take place. A particularly good book for Christians to read regarding this subject is Sidewalks in the Kingdom, New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, by Eric O. Jacobsen. This book makes a good case that even though New Urbanism is not a Christian idea per se, it is one that Christians can endorse because it so closely parallels a Christian worldview, and ought to fully engage so as to exert our influence on its direction.

I am presently reading The Great Good Place, by Ray Oldenburg. I am so far a little disappointed in this book. I think he too narrowly defines “third places,” but I’ll withhold judgment until I finish the book.

One other source of inspiration for me has been the book, On Being Black and Reformed: A New Perspective on the African-American Experience. This book revealed to me that we not only can and should extend our Reformed heritage beyond our Dutch Reformed boundaries, but that this is not a ludicrous, idealistic idea. It is already happening. This book has given me the confidence to argue that a Reformed world-view is not simply a Dutch worldview and not synonymous with a Christian worldview, but that it has unique characteristics that are beneficial for all ethnic groups, even those heavily influenced by other Christian traditions. This probably relates more to my role as a school board member trying to retain a distinctively Reformed Christian School than it does as a businessman, but I include it here never-the-less.

How do you see your hardware store being an important public gathering space—a “third place”—in your community?

I believe the hardware store is one of the “third places” that Oldenburg describes, even though he may not agree. Oldenburg argues that one of the characteristics of a third place is that the primary activity that takes place there is conversation, and a second characteristic is that it is a place where people feel comfortable lingering. This may not seem to fit the hardware store, but I can assure you, both are true. I have commented to friends that on many occasions I feel like the local bartender as I stand behind the sales counter. People like to talk. They like to discuss local as well as more global issues, sometimes even personal problems. The demolition of many of the old buildings in my area, making way for the coming redevelopment has caused more than a little angst in some members of the community, and they need a place to vent. Perhaps the fact that this is a dry town makes the hardware store even more important. There is no pub where they can go to have these discussions. As for lingering, I wish that I could afford more help so that I could prolong some of these discussions. I have on numerous occasions had to usher someone gently along as they continued talking while other customers were waiting.

I have had countless people stand at the counter and tell me how much they hate the Home Depots and Loews and Menards of the world. People say that it’s too hard to find what they want, that there is no knowledgable help there. While this is very often true, quite honestly it can sometimes also be said of the local hardware store, including my own. Having everything people want, when they want it, is difficult in a space as small as mine. But what this space offers is intimacy. I think what people really appreciate, whether I’m able to help them or not, is the fact that a familiar face is there, and I took the time to help them.

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