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`PROGRESS’ IS THE NAIL IN SHOP’S COFFIN

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If Will Webster's father taught him one thing about the hardware business, it was that the customer always comes first.

That philosophy made sense when Webster was growing up in Riverton, where the customers who frequented his dad's store were neighbors, friends and people they'd pass on the street. There were few strangers then, but even they would receive the same personalized treatment at Webster Inc.Will Webster took that philosophy with him 10 years ago when he bought S.J. Mickelsen & Co., which had served as Draper's hardware store for 72 years. He changed the name to Draper Hardware and Lumber and went about doing what any third-generation hardware store owner would do.

"My business was really based on service and getting to know people," said Webster, 38. "Our policy was any person who came in the store, we were there to wait on them and help them in any way we could.

"Maybe that turns people off. Some people like to go in a store and feel like they can be in the store and not be interrupted. But the people we deal with, they like that."

And for that reason, it is with some guilt and a heavy dose of remorse that Webster is closing the door on the business he hoped would be his forever - one he could, perhaps, pass on to a fourth generation of Webster hardware store owners.

"I feel real bad that we are letting the people down," said Webster, whose store will open for the last time Saturday at 9 a.m. "I tried the best I could, but it's just been a financial struggle to keep it going for years.

"The people in Draper are super. I have a lot of love for them. (Closing) has been a real sensitive deal."

As Webster has discovered, sensitivity is not a key trait in today's competitive business world. The corporate quest to expand markets has ripped into the heart of Draper, shattering consumer loyalty just as surely as the city's old way of life is being swallowed by unprecedented growth.

The hardware store's demise follows the recent departure of the local grocery, drugstore and cafe - all victims of Draper's transformation from farming town to bedroom community.

Rex's Barbershop, next door to Draper Hardware, is one of the few places left where local folks can gather and shoot the breeze. Lately, Webster's decision has been a hot topic of conversation.

"Well, hell, everybody's disappointed," said Rex Rogers, the local barber since 1957, who worries his landlord might soon sell his building, forcing him out as well.

"Will's was a convenience store. He was there for you if you needed something, and if he didn't have it he'd get it for you. He was a fine man and we hated to see him go."

Webster saw his business grow steadily from the time of purchase in 1984. His best year was 1989, before the recession hit, but business remained good until recently, when an influx of large retail businesses in the south valley began to take its toll.

It started with Kmart's arrival in Draper in May 1993. A year later, Eagle Hardware opened in neighboring Sandy, and just last month both Home Depot and Ernst Home & Nursery took up business there. Anderson Lumber is set to open a Draper store in May, and Jenson Lumber, a longtime Draper business, plans to open a second store in town next spring.

"When Eagle and Home Depot and places like that were just talking about going into business, a lot of people didn't think they'd survive, but they've devastated the hardware industry," Webster said. "A couple of my departments were hit real hard when Kmart opened - paint, housewares-type stuff. Eagle hit everything else."

During that time, Draper's population has grown by well over 1,000. There are now about 9,000 residents, and the city projects 20,000 will live within its boundaries in five years.

But the newcomers, for one reason or another, have largely regarded Draper Hardware as a white elephant.

"The new people coming in are probably accustomed to the one-stop-shop type of world, the modern store," said Lynn Ballard, a retired teacher who has visited Draper Hardware almost daily in the more than 20 years he has maintained the city park.

Ballard chalks up the loss of longtime local businesses, in part, to a lack of loyalty among new residents. Because they have no local roots or historical bond with the community, they are less motivated to support the corner store, he said.

"So there's no incentive for the owners of these businesses to fight the change hard enough as the loyalty to the local store becomes less important," he said.

Webster got the distinct impression that what his store had to offer just wasn't what most of the newcomers wanted.

"I had a major feeling they just didn't want to support us," he said.

As if all that weren't enough, Webster's lumber supplier, Boise Cascade Corp., recently told him it would no longer sell to him on an as-needed basis. Given his store's small volume, Webster said, there was no way he could afford to buy a full unit at a time.

Webster talked to Anderson Lumber and Jenson Lumber about buying his store, or at least his stock, but they weren't interested. Finally, he threw in the trowel.

Draper Hardware ended its final full week of operation Nov. 25. Webster has opened the store every Saturday since then in hopes of liquidating what his suppliers wouldn't take back. Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., he will make one more attempt to do so.

Webster has already moved on to a second career. Mark Hiatt, a longtime acquaintance who had always been impressed with Webster's versatility and enthusiasm, has hired him to do sales work for his new Draper-based company, APW Industrial Inc.

There will be no more 14-hour days, six-day weeks or years gone by without a vacation. Webster will spend more time with his wife, Cindy, and their five children, and will continue his involvement with the Boy Scouts.

But he can't occupy himself enough to take his mind off the store completely.

"What he'll miss most is helping the people of Draper," his wife said. "It's very hard for him to let go of that."

Webster's longtime customers know how he feels. They're going through the same thing.