ONTARIO — “This age thing — nobody’s been able to stop it.”
Those were the words of John Kirby on Thursday afternoon when explaining how he has decided to “slow down” and sell his hardware store which has existed in the community for nearly a century. He said Kinney Bros & Keele True Value Hardware will become the fourth in a regional chain of eastern Oregon Ace Hardware stores.
The initial intent was for his children, Mara Kirby-Garcia and Randall Kirby to end up owning the store. However, John Kirby said his debt tied to the store was enough that they were unable to “buy me out so I could retire.” Instead, he negotiated a deal with Thatcher’s Ace Hardware, which has locations in Baker City, La Grande and Pendleton.
“It was a shock to them,” he said of his children, who will be retained as local managers.
However, Kirby said, the new owners will be able to provide extra perks for them that he was unable to.
The rest of the staff will remain, too, including Kirby, who will be taking more of a background role.
The biggest change is that Ace Hardware will become the major supplier for the store, explains a news release. Kirby-Garcia further explained on Thursday that the new owners aim to keep the True Value merchandise alongside that of Ace Hardware.
Kirby began his career with the hardware store 58 years ago, when he was a sophomore in high school and was hired by then-owner Bill Keele.
After high school, Kirby graduated from Treasure Valley Community College and then went on to Portland State University, which was Portland State College at the time. It was while he was in his senior year there, that Keele traveled to Portland to visit Kirby, asking him to become a partner.
But at that time, Kirby said his first obligation was to complete basic and advanced training for the Idaho National Guard. His duty station was in Idaho, he said noting that it was technically the Weiser Unit, in the Payette Detachment.
In December of 1970, Kirby finally entered the hardware store partnership.
“I’ve been here every day since,” he said.
Kirby, who is serving on the Ontario City Council with his term through the end of 2024, says he aims to stay active in the community.
“As long as my health will allow it,” he said.
Health permitting, Kirby said he’d also like to travel. Places that interest him include Alaska and Ireland, though noted his wife, Judith, might like to go to other places.
Judith was not involved in the hardware store, as she was a registered nurse. Kirby said she earned her degree from the University of Portland, and a few years after that became a nurse practitioner.
“She was the number eight certified in Idaho as a Nurse Practitioner,” Kirby said.
Issues from a car accident caused her to retire and focus on her health.
“She’s healthy now and very active with our grandson and church,” he said.
And now, Kirby is ready to join her in retirement. He says it’s “just part of what’s going on” for him, noting the decision was based on his age and physical capabilities.
Kirby said the financing for purchasing the store is in place and the biggest step remaining is completing an inventory of the store’s product.
In a news release about the sale, Kirby said he has agreed to mentor and teach the new owners in “a few specialty areas of the business.”
He said his mentors were Bill and Irene Keele, who were his partners for many years. In the 1970s, Mike Pratt and Bob Reid became partners, too; both have since retired.
Keele entered the scene of his family’s business in 1945, remaining on as an owner with his wife, Irene, until the couple retired in 1981. Bill Keele’s father, Claude Keele, joined with Lloyd and L.J. Hop Kinney in 1926 to purchase J.C. McCreight Hardware.
The new owner, Scott Thatcher, is someone Kirby has known for several years.
According to the news release, Scott Thatcher, originally from Eugene, relocated to Baker County where his parents were ranching. In 1998, they bought the Coast to Coast store in Baker City, switching to Ace Hardware in 2000.
Scott’s son, Zach, and daughter-in-law Tori, will be the principal owner/managers of the Ontario store.
Zach recently retired from the Baker City Police Department and Tori is a Baker County native, states the release.
“This will not be new to Zach, as he was raised in the hardware business,” Kirby said in the release. “I’m excited because this has always been a family business, and so it will remain. The Thatchers embody the same eastern Oregon farm/ranch values that we have.”