In celebration of the Wright City Chamber of Commerce’s 80th year, The Record is publishing a series of stories to highlight the local businesses that call Wright City home.
When brothers Aaron and Jarrett Holiway took over the hardware store in downtown Wright City three years ago, they weren’t coming into a thriving business. The store, they said, had for years been in decline and didn’t have much remaining in terms of inventory or customers.
“When we took it over, it was really scary. We were doing $300 to $500 days. You can’t hardly keep the lights on for that,” said Aaron Holiway.
Now known as Wright City Hardware and General Store, the business is one of the oldest in town. It has changed owners, and names, several times over the last couple of decades. Founded under the name “Bueneman’s,” the store was a hometown staple for decades, before falling into decline.
It wasn’t that customers didn’t want to shop there. Aaron said many local residents, including the Holiways themselves, tried to support their local business, but couldn’t find what they needed as the store’s shelves became bare under previous ownership. That was the first challenge Aaron and Jarrett had to overcome when they accepted an offer to buy the store in June 2016.
“We were ordering $6,000 to $10,000 per week worth of inventory to try to build the shelves back up. … We went into debt ordering stock,” Aaron said.
As it turned out, that investment along with a few creative offerings was what they needed to get customers back through the door. They paid back what they had spent beefing up their inventory within the first year, Aaron said.
The Holiways have been Wright City residents for 30 years. Much of the money they used to take over and revamp the hardware store came from their local construction business, American Oasis, which they still run. They used that prior experience to guide the store’s product selection and gave a lot of free advice on home improvement projects, two ways they keep customers shopping local instead of driving down the interstate to a different hardware store.
“We just want to be as friendly and helpful as we can to people, get them in the door and show them how good of service we can give them,” Aaron said.
Especially in terms of paint and tools, they stocked high-quality products that they looked for as contractors, but couldn’t find in bigger stores. The front displays of Wright City Hardware now feature Benjamin Moore paint and Stihl tools. For other hardware items, they try to keep prices competitive with other stores.
But in a continued effort to differentiate Wright City Hardware, Jarrett Holiway said they also decided to appeal to a different side of customers’ sensibilities.
“We started baiting them with Ted Drewes ice cream,” Jarrett laughed. “That’s huge. Even in the wintertime people come in to buy that stuff.”
They also started selling a sausage breakfast sandwich based on a local recipe. Both food items have become regular parts of the “general store” side of sales, Jarrett said.
The brothers are aware of the long history of the store they now own. Longtime customers regularly tell them how much they loved the store when it was owned by the Bueneman family. Some even give the Holiways history lessons when expansions were added, or what the building looked like before it was added onto.
Living up to that legacy and rebuilding that image is something the brothers are mindful of after the store changed hands multiple times before them. They said they were the first local people to own the hardware store in 25 years.
Jim Bueneman, 77, worked at Bueneman’s store while his father Elihu owned it throughout the mid-1900s. He said his father’s store served everyone in the community, even those who were struggling.
“Back then people didn’t have money,” Bueneman said. “If you couldn’t afford a stove or a gun, or whatever, he would trade a pig, or a cow, or a duck, or a dog.”
The Bueneman’s general store was originally built in the mid-’40s on the site of a garage his father purchased. Elihu did well for a man who started with nothing and only had an eighth-grade education, commented Bueneman.
He said the businesses and people of Wright City have changed a lot since his family owned the business. Goods and products used to be delivered on the railroad, and he said the people used to have a much stronger sense of community and working together. He speculated that running the hardware store now might be more difficult than it was in the past.
“It’s altogether a different business than it was back then,” Bueneman said. “Nobody wants quality merchandise. You’ve got all of these (stores) that sell junk tools.”
But looking around the Wright City area, Bueneman still sees the members of families that his father helped through the store, who have since worked their way up from poverty to success. That’s a local impact he said he’s happy to see.