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Closing up shop: Bretz announces retirement, hardware store closing

Bretz Hardware has been located in downtown Perham since 1962. Jim and Sheri Bretz have elected to close their business due to health reasons. Brian Hansel/FOCUS1 / 2
Jim and Sheri Bretz are leaving the hardware business. Jim took over the business from his father 37 years ago. Brian Hansel/FOCUS2 / 2

Jim Bretz can hardly remember a time when he was not in hardware.

From time to time over the years he has been asked the question "How long have you been in business?"

It makes the 61-year-old smile.

"When people ask me that question I always say, "When I was old enough to say, 'May I help you?'" Bretz laughed as he took a break behind the counter in his store

His father, Al, opened the store in downtown Perham in 1962. What was a business for him was a sort of playground for his son.

"When I was young this was my backyard," Bretz said as he looked around the First Avenue S. store he has owned for the last 37 years.

Al Bretz must have known early that his son was a natural for the hardware business. Jim was inquisitive and a natural problem solver. He was not permitted as a kid to buy a go-kart because they were too dangerous. His solution? Build his own. After the first one turned out pretty well he went on to build six more.

"We had never stocked roller chain or Grade 8 bolts until then," Bretz laughed.

Bretz attended Wadena Tech (now M. State-Wadena) for electronics after graduating from Perham High. His first job out of school was for Telex Communications in Glencoe, Minn. He was in its hearing aid department when the day came that Telex decided to move its operation from the mid-Minnesota farming community to Rochester, home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic.

Bretz was pondering his future with Telex when his father pitched him a proposal. If he did not like the idea of moving to Rochester, then why not move back to Perham and sell hardware? His dad was ready to step aside.

The hardware business is a difficult one to operate. A hardware man has to be able to build, fix, explain and understand everything in his inventory. It can also be hard on a person's health.

Bretz was a pack-a-day smoker for years until the day came when he was told he had Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease (COPD). The breathing problem forces Bretz to use an oxygen machine.

In the peak years of the hardware business, Bretz had around 10 employees. Bretz Hardware sold large appliances in those days, and Bretz spent many evenings modifying furnaces to work with the existing ductwork.

For years Bretz Hardware, like many other Perham businesses, was open all day Saturday. It was the busiest day of the week for many of them. But the traffic has changed. Bretz has been closing his store on Saturday at 1 p.m.

Because he cannot be in his store as early or as long as he used to be, Bretz is calling it quits this summer. He is holding a close-out sale with the help of his son, Nick.

"I can't get around as much to wait on the people the way they should be waited on," Bretz said. "I love the interaction with the customers. The only drawback is that it's hard to lose old customers."

Bretz has always thought the best thing about running a hardware business is how it can teach a person to build things. When someone has the materials, the parts and the tools at their disposal, there is not much to stop them from building whatever they need.

"It's a good place to get an education," said Eric Torgerson, who has worked for Bretz the last 10 years.

Bretz built his first computer — a Timex — from a kit and used it at the store. He even wrote a program for it.

"We ran our accounts receivable on it for 10 years," Bretz said.

In helping his customers understand what they need in order to carry out a project, such as plumbing, Bretz likes to build it in front of them. By seeing, instead of just hearing, what Bretz is telling them, the customer's chances of "doing it themselves" increase exponentially.

After finding out about the condition of his health, Bretz was told to "slow down" by his doctor.

"I can't slow down when I'm in the hardware store," Bretz said. "That is another reason I'm taking early retirement. I work too much, and I need a good solid rest."

Bretz knows he will find something to do in retirement. He has had many hobbies in his life.

"I'm sure I'll find another one," he grinned.