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Hardware store a ‘heck of a loss’
The shelves are half-empty, not half-full.
Calhan Hardware store is going out of business.
As soon as the slashed-priced pipe fittings, tools, paint and by-thepound nails are gone, the doors will close, likely in a few weeks.
Owner Jeff Woolsey says he just can't pay the bills anymore.
"It's the economy whipping you," Woolsey, 36, said as he cut a car key for a customer.
He quit his hospital X-ray technician job in Colorado Springs in 1999 to return to his Calhan roots to buy the hardware store from its previous owner.
It's a hop from U.S. Highway 24 and across the street from the grocery store run by three generations of his family. His brother, Jim, had Woolsey's Food Center until selling it a year ago.
"This is the last of our family in business here," Woolsey said. "I was hoping to sell it outright to someone or keep it open."
There were no takers. Not then, not now. Soon, the echo of friendly chatter and shrill buzz of the key-cutting machine will be replaced by hollow silence in the nondescript yellow brick building on Colorado Avenue.
A general supply/feed store that opened last year in the former bowling alley west of town carries hardware items, but not the nuts-andbolts of Woolsey's place.
The town of about 850 people about 35 miles from downtown Colorado Springs also boasts a Loaf 'N Jug, several diners, a bank and a motor speedway and hosts the El Paso County Fair.
Calhan is similar to other sparsely populated towns dotting the eastern plains, away from the urban hustle yet increasingly entangled in it.
The Homestead Act of 1862 brought farmers and cattlemen to the region, but now most Calhan residents commute to work.
"It's a whiplash effect from what happened 50 years ago to change the culture from a less agrarian society to more service-oriented society," Woolsey said. "All these small towns are based around agriculture. A lot of small towns that have been there forever are dying off. There's no jobs."
Blair Bartling took over the unpaid post of Calhan mayor in April, running unopposed in an election in which 46 of the town's 500 registered voters showed up to vote.
"Every town is struggling. We'll keep plugging," Bartling said.
He's a regular at Woolsey's store.
"It is real handy, if you need a bolt or screw, piece of sandpaper, weed whacker string or chain-saw blade," he said. "It's a real asset."
It isn't paying the rent, though.
"The housing market is in the toilet, and that drives this business," Woolsey said. "Houses aren't being built or purchased or upgraded or changed."
Woolsey, wearing a Gorilla Glue T-shirt and rectangular eyeglasses, sports a look more rock musician than country hardware.
"I play guitar, bass, sing. I taught guitar lessons. I may do some of that," he said.
He likes being his own boss. That's one reason he left his city hospital job to return to Calhan. Hardware seemed a good fit.
"I grew up working on stuff with my dad, putting additions on the grocery store," he said. "I learned about building codes and electrical."
Customer George Payne depends on the know-how of Woolsey and staff.
"These are people who can help me figure out my messes," Payne said. "If you had something broke down like plumbing or something and you don't know what in the heck to do, they always figure it out."
Inventory was second to ingenuity.
"If he didn't have something we needed he'd come up with something that worked," Payne said. "There are some funky old houses in Calhan."
The store offered him more than a quick fix.
"When people you know run something, you trust them," he said. "It's things that don't happen going in a big store."
Payne's visits aren't all business.
"It's kind of a break place, too. When you're mowing all day and it's hot, you whip in here and have a pop with the guys and the girls."
The store employs five, including Fawn Strange, a 14-year sales veteran who stayed with the store after Woolsey bought it.
She worries more about the customers than herself. "Anytime a store closes," she said, "people are sad."
Ray Borngesser uses a mobility scooter to get around Calhan and shop at the hardware store.
"It's close to my house," he said. "I don't drive a car. I can get what I need and get home and do what I need to do."
For customer Jerry Benson, ducking into the store is part of daily life.
"It's going to be a loss," he said, clutching a few cans of primer "A heck of a loss."