Diana and Scott Thatcher, owners of the Ace hardware store in the La Grande Town Center, employ five people in their new sporting goods section and 20 people throughout the store. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
Ace Hardware in the La Grande Town Center on Island Avenue is growing, and in a way that should please people who love the great outdoors.
On March 1, owners Scott and Diana Thatcher opened their new sporting goods department, a store-within-a-store that looks and feels like the outdoor emporiums shoppers find in much larger towns.
It’s a big, clean, well-lit place, decorated with a wide assortment of taxidermy mounts, and it shows hunting and fishing videos on wall-mounted televisions.
On the shelves and in display cases or racks are guns and ammo and compound bows, reloading supplies, fishing poles and camo clothes, camping gear, really just about anything people need to complete an outdoors experience.
There’s even an indoor archery lane, for shooters trying out a new bow or just looking to practice their aim.
Scott Thatcher said he plans to keep growing the operation, but likes what’s there so far.
“It’s kind of a vision I had in my head, and it came out better than I saw it,” he said.
The Thatchers have been in the hardware business 14 years, having started out with an Ace store in Baker City. They built that into a business employing about 25 people before opening their second Ace store in La Grande in 2009.
The new sporting goods department at Ace Hardware in the La Grande Town Center is designed to appeal to outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. Decor includes many taxidermy mounts contributed by local people.
Thatcher said the La Grande hardware operation did well from the start.
“It’s been very good, exceeding our expectations so far,” he said.
The Baker City store has a small outdoors department, something the Thatchers meant to improve on in a big way in La Grande.
Last year, they negotiated with their landlords for additional space, came to a favorable deal, and started renovations. A builder employed by the landlord came in and knocked out a wall so the store could expand to the north.
Walls were covered with rustic-looking, knotty wood, new lighting went in, and other necessary remodeling was completed.
Then came the taxidermy mounts ---- elk, deer, antelope, buffalo, bear, wild turkeys and several other species.
Thatcher said most of the mounts are contributed by local people, including department manager Phil Gillette. He said the mounts will change from time to time.
“We’ve already had people calling us about displaying. We even had one lady with a big Marlin,” Thatcher said.
Thatcher said five people work in the department, and some have specific outdoors store expertise.
Gillette, for one, ran his own outdoors store in La Grande’s Bearco Loop for years before stepping on board at Ace.
Gillette said he came to work for the Thatchers last Christmas Eve, though the deal was in the works for awhile before that.
“I heard what Scott wanted to do, and we talked. My wife and I mutually agreed it was the right move. Now I work for somebody else, but I get to do what I love,” he said.
Archery was a specialty at Gillette’s store, and in the new operation he will continue with that. The indoor lane is patterned after one he built for his own business.
“Scott’s pretty much had me involved from the get-go,” Gillette said.
Another recent hire is Laurie Hargett, who ran the outdoors and camera department at the La Grande Payless Store (now Rite-Aid) back in the 1990s.
Hargett said she came to the Ace Store looking to buy some rope a few months ago, and ended up with a job as outdoors department assistant manager.
She said she’s been getting a lot of positive feedback from customers since the new department opened.
“People are really excited about this,” she said.
Scott Thatcher said he thinks La Grande wants and needs an outdoor store like his, a place where people can talk with knowledgeable counter help and put their hands on the merchandise.
“We’re just excited to be here and provide something we feel the community needs,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of stuff that gets bought on the Internet, but we think people want this kind of shopping experience too,” he said.
He said said there is room for the new department to grow, and fully expects more features to be added as time goes on. That includes expansion of the product line.
“We think we’ve got a lot of stuff here, but we know our customers will tell us what we don’t have,” he said.
Diana Thatcher said she was a little concerned about the grand scale of her husband’s plans for an outdoors section, but now that it’s up and running, she’s a believer.
“Of the two of us, I’m more conservative,” she said. “I was a little hesitant, but he had the vision and now I’m very happy with what I see.”