Owner taking Swift Hardware forward
HOUGHTON — As construction workers move around the basement of Swift Hardware preparing it for its next leap, owner Marilyn Swift stands in her father’s old downstairs office, reflecting on how far she and the company have come.
Swift became the first female owner in the store’s 154-year history in 2010 after her father Paul died. She bought the business from the family trust.
“We had to do something,” she said. “(My brother) Jack wanted to retire, and so he said, ‘What are you going to do with the store, trustee?’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll come down and run it.'”
She’d had experience with the store, running the Toyland department for a year when she was a teenager, and then working at the store for a year-and-a-half after moving back up to Michigan after 20 years of living in the south.
As a student at Savannah (Georgia) College of Art and Design, she’d also taken business classes.
“Even in the art world, you have to have some sort of business background, too,” she said.
She’d melded art and business for decades by the time she took over Swift Hardware. She ran stained-glass businesses, first down south, and then in Houghton, where she opened Marilyn’s Stained Glass.
For the most part, she was jumping into the hardware business blind. At the time, the store was affiliated with True Value, which provided some training for new business owners, who often come from family. She also took courses on plumbing and heating, giving her enough background to advise do-it-yourselfers.
“They come in and say, ‘I have this thingamajig, and it has to go with this whatchamacallit,’ because they don’t know the words, so you have to try to figure out what a customer wants, and what the needs are,” she said. “It’s about fixing a problem, and that’s what hardware is all about.”
One of Swift’s first orders of business was building up the store’s inventory, which had gotten sparse.
“It was kind of skimpy in here, and I knew that you can’t sell from an empty cart,” she said.
She also diversified the store’s product line.
“I noticed it would always be the man in the store, and I noticed that there’d be a wife and kids, and they’d be out in the car,” she said. “And I said, ‘I want the whole family in here.'”
Swift reintroduced the Toyland section for the kids, and the giftware section for the women. At the time, there were no other gift stores in downtown Houghton, she said. She started building that out as a specialty, bringing in Scandinavian items and going to trade shows.
Swift said the most gratifying thing about running the store is the customers’ happiness at seeing it revived.
“I’m working on the floor, and I’m ordering stuff for people and they’re solving their problems,” she said. “That’s a really nice feeling that you can help somebody.”
At the height of COVID, she took a sabbatical, going on an RV trip through the country. There was the strain of dealing with the pandemic, which had tangled supply chains. There was also the death of her husband, which happened at the same time.
She spread her husband’s ashes hiking out West, and while visiting Arlington National Cemetery. She stayed with friends in Key West and saw Willie Nelson in St. Augustine. She even went to a hardware show in New Orleans, which let her experience Mardi Gras.
The trip gave her closure, Swift said. And she was reassured the store would survive no matter what, because of the quality of people who work there.
“Hardware people are a pretty interesting bunch,” she said. “They’re just good, wholesome, hard-working people … I’m a lucky girl to be born into this family, and to have the opportunity to run this store.”
Another big adjustment was the teardown of the Lakeshore Drive parking deck, where many Swift’s customers had parked and entered through the back.
It was a blow, Swift said. But she soon resolved to “take all my energy and try and find positive things that I can do.”
The store will add a second entrance on Shelden Avenue. And in the biggest change, Swift is remodeling the downstairs, which will become the “Gateway to Shelden Avenue.”
Inspired by the Vertin’s department store displays that were in the space when she was a child, Swift is revamping the downstairs to turn the heads of the captive audience.
“They’re on their way to Shelden Avenue, and they’re going to see things in the hardware store that they’ve never seen before,” she said. “Because if they didn’t go looking for them, they wouldn’t know we had hot water heaters, or garbage disposals or vanities. But if they’re going to walk along, they’re going to see them. And I want to do a really nice display of everything.”
Swift is grateful for the opportunity to run the store and take it forward.
“It’s funny, because my dad was kind of old-fashioned,” she said. “He never would have thought that a woman would be running his hardware store. I know that. He didn’t even want women in Rotary. But he would be very proud of me. His friends come and tell me that. They tell me, ‘Oh, your dad would have loved this, what you’ve done with the store.'”