'You can’t beat this place.' Rockford's Nicholson Hardware still thriving after 76 years

Ken DeCoster
Rockford Register Star

ROCKFORD — Neil Reed stopped by Nicholson Hardware Thursday morning to purchase a few items he needed for repairs to his Rockford home.

“I come here because they always have everything I need,” Reed, 65, said. “For hardware, plumbing items, nuts and bolts, I come here. You can’t beat this place. The employees are always helpful.”

Nicholson Hardware’s 25,000-square-foot storefront in the city’s Midtown District is steeped in nostalgia. 

The building, which was constructed in the 1920s, originally housed a car dealership and later a grocery store before the Nicholson family acquired the property and set up shop in 1971.

The company’s Lawn and Garden store is located a block away at 1009 Third Avenue. 

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Nicholson Hardware prides itself on customer service and an inventory of hard-to-find items, according to store president Paul Nicholson, who co-owns the business with his brother, Scott, and sisters, Julie Shalbrack, Jodie Lewis and Deb Norris. 

“I think the big boxes tend to go with a lot of the more popular items while we focus on products that aren’t as common,” Paul Nicholson said. “Parts for repairing a faucet, nuts and bolts, we carry a wide range of fasteners. Even power tools, paints and some of the specialty type items that the big box stores may gloss over, we try to stock. Our customers enjoy coming here because we typically have the product they are looking for.”

Founded in 1945 by brothers Melvin and Ahlex Nicholson, the hardware store was originally located at 208 Seventh St. The business, now at 1131 Second Ave., has been owned and operated by the Nicholson family for three generations.

“I would say we’re strong in paint sales,” said Scott Nicholson, who serves as company treasurer. “Door hardware, including knobs and latches, is an area we have a lot of history in. Paul has been running the tool department forever, so that’s strong, especially affordable power tools.”

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Nicholson Hardware’s sales, including its lawn and garden store at 1009 Third Avenue, totaled $6.5 million in 2020, which was up about 10% from the previous year.

“I attribute it to a lot of people with more time on their hands, working from home and seeing things they want to accomplish at home and having the time and energy to do it,” Scott Nicholson said. 

About half of Nicholson Hardware’s business is generated by sales to property management groups, maintenance and repair operations and local government agencies. 

The company currently has 36 full-time and part-time employees and is looking to hire additional staff.

John Burns of Rockford manages the store’s plumbing and fastener department and has worked at Nicholson Hardware since 1982.

“Their father, Dale Nicholson, hired me and was good to me,” Burns, 65, said. “About a year after I started, I got married and Dale gave me a bonus. A year after that, when my son was born, Dale gave me another bonus. So, that was a way to create loyalty, I think.”

There are tentative plans to expand the hardware store to bring the company’s lawn and garden operation under one roof, said Paul Nicholson, 63, who has been a fixture at the store since he graduated from East High School in 1976.

“I enjoy helping people,” he said. “Maybe they have projects that they don’t fully understand or they need equipment to complete them. It’s very rewarding to help them achieve their goals.”

Nicholson Hardware is a true family affair with five siblings committed to maintaining the store’s independent brand.

“The only reason it works is because everybody pulls their own weight," Scott Nicholson, 53, said. "Fortunately, we’ve been so busy that we really don’t have time to pick on each other. It’s pretty much all hands on deck, and let’s get this done.”

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Ken DeCoster: kdecoster@rrstar.com; @DeCosterKen