OLIVIA -- Nearly 10 years ago Karen and Don Theisen decided they wanted to own their own business and work together, even if it meant leaving their home in Blaine and stable jobs with enviable four-day work weeks.
But what business, and where, they asked first?
They enjoyed camping, and looked at all kinds of campgrounds and resorts, but eventually realized it was not what they wanted.
Husband Don, a true Mr. Fixit with a farm background and career in fabrication and welding, suggested the hardware business. Soon, they were making a whole new round of visits to communities across southern Minnesota with hardware stores for sale.
It came to a successful conclusion not in a hardware store, but in Bart's Café in Renville.
"We walked in the front door and it felt right instantly,'' said Karen. She gave up a career as office support for the Minnesota Supreme Court to be a small-town retailer.
The Theise's said their visit to Bart's Café showed them that Renville was an open, friendly and very active community.
They have owned and operated Renville Hardware & Rental Inc. since July 2001.
Since January 2006, they have also owned and operated Olivia Hardware & Rental Inc.
Owning the two stores has increased their purchasing power, which translates into both price savings and a greater variety of goods for their customers, they said.
Don tends the Renville store and Karen the Olivia store. She manages the bookwork for both from one location, thanks to computers.
Although their typical work week is six days of 10- and 12-hour days, "the time flies, it just goes so fast,'' said Karen. "It's time to go home before I realize it.''
Each day brings a steady flow of people who know there is only one place to get help along with the doohickeys they need: The local hardware store.
"Customer service" is what small-town hardware stores are all about, said the Theisens.
Yet it takes more than being helpful and friendly to run a business, as the Theisens discovered as soon as they purchased the Renville store. July is the time when hardware store owners make their orders for Christmas and winter inventory, and the Theisens had to start making decisions before their first day in the store.
"Overwhelming,'' said Karen of how it all looked at first.
But they had help. Their stores are part of United Hardware, a cooperative, and their district manager was right there to assist them, they said.
The owners of neighboring stores are always willing to help one another as needs arise too, said Don.
"All of us little retailers are in this together,'' said Karen.
The competition comes from the big-box retailers, but this David and Goliath battle is not as mismatched as it might seem. The big-box retailers hold the upper hand when it comes to the perception of low prices, said the Theisens. They keep their prices low on a list of goods that stick in customers' minds.
But eight years in the business have shown them that small-town hardware stores are every bit as competitive in pricing, thanks to group purchasing, they said.
And just how good is the small-store service? "We make house visits,'' said Karen. She will happily head over to a customer's residence to offer her recommendations on paint and color selections.
Better yet, she has installed a computer terminal in the store. It allows customers to plug in a digital photo of their room or house, and see how it looks under a variety of color schemes.
The Theisens said that is the norm in small-town hardware stores today. They are constantly adding new technology and changing along with everyone else. "If you're afraid of change, it would be really hard to be in retail and survive,'' said Karen.
She and her husband feel that small, independent hardware stores have an advantage over big-box chains in how they can readily meet the needs of their local markets.
Although their Olivia and Renville stores are no more than 12 miles from one another, each is tailored to its different market area. In Renville, plumbing and housewares lead the sales. In Olivia, painting is followed by lawn and garden.
Along with knowing what their customers want, small-town retailers also enjoy the pleasure of actually getting to know their customers, said the Theisens.
On more than one occasion, they've opened their car door at the end of the day to find a bag of fresh garden goods waiting. Once, they were pulled over on the way home. A thankful customer insisted on handing over the pheasant he had harvested.
Owning their own business has proven to be everything they expected, and that definitely includes hard work and long hours. "It can't be a hobby. You really have to make a commitment,'' said Karen.
But it's clear how much they enjoy it. When they get away today, it isn't to go camping. "We go visit hardware stores,'' Karen sheepishly confessed.