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VOL. 37 | NO. 18 | Friday, May 3, 2013

Show boosts business at Handy Hardware

By Tim Ghianni

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Handy Hardware owner Andy Willoughby has gotten a little help with his inventory from girlfriend Donna O’Neil, a Franklin writer and former journalist.

-- Charlie Kaser

FRANKLIN – Andy Willoughby, a former Williamson County EMT, stands by a counter display case filled with Viva! NashVegas paraphernalia, watching the radio show taking place at the back of his store while the cash register clerk rings up another sale of paint or ten-penny nails.

Willoughby’s family business, Handy Hardware – on Columbia Avenue, just a couple blocks from the preservationist’s dream that is historic downtown Franklin – is bustling on a Saturday. That’s at least in large part because a humble little “I know what we can do. Let’s put on a radio show!” dream uses his store as its studio, and hardware shoppers provide for a lively, popcorn-eating audience.

Until a year ago, the old-fashioned hardware store – a handy stop for Franklin homeowners and do-it-yourselfers who don’t want to make expeditions to and through Home Depot or Lowe’s – was closed on Saturdays and on Sundays.

Handy Hardware

The structure containing Handy Hardware Store was built in 1930. It was the old Farnsworth Building, which housed the S.E. Farnsworth Company, a millworks and construction business.

At the time, Franklin’s hardware needs were met by Wilkerson Hardware, managed by Mr. and Mrs. Rusty Wilkerson, on Main Street. They managed the store for the Jewel brothers, who put it up for sale.

A group of Franklin businessmen including Calvin Lehew, Ronald Ligon, Dr. Joseph Willoughby and Jimmy and Johnny Jewel (sons of the owners) purchased the contents and moved them to the vacant Farnsworth Building.

The Farnsworth Company was no longer in existence.

The store, christened Handy Hardware, opened in its current location in 1971.

Dr. Willoughby, who still operates the family practice he opened in 1960 at 1311 West Main St. in downtown Franklin, later purchased the store from the rest of the investors. He still owns the business.

His son, Andy Willoughby, who is on the store’s board of directors with other family members, took over the management of the store in the early 1990s.

Now it’s still closed Sundays and half of the Saturdays. But every other Saturday, it is filled with activity and mandolins and such, giving his business what he estimates at an 8 percent boost over last year.

The difference-maker in this case is the guy with the long hair and the Fedora-styled cowboy hat who is using hillbilly wordplay and music as ringmaster of the “Viva! NashVegas Radio Show.”

About a year and a half ago, the idea was hatched – by George Hamilton V (the guy with the long hair) – that he wanted to do this Internet radio show to offer up an alternative to more-staged concerts and at the same time as a way to peddle “Viva! NashVegas” T-shirts and posters.

Willoughby also saw it as an opportunity to do something different at the business he loves.

“I said, ‘you know what? We’ll give this a try,’’’ he says, recalling the conversations with Hamilton and his friends that hatched what has become a sort of underground Franklin phenomenon that goes around the world live on the Internet and is supplemented later by the posting of YouTube video clips.

“It keeps on getting bigger and better. It’s really grown,” says Willoughby, adding that because of the wider variety of customers, “we have actually put in a general store-type theme.”

While trips to an old-fashioned hardware are in themselves entertaining, now he has couples who come in regularly to “set a spell” while guitars and mandolins gently weep and well-educated and worldly hillbillies swap tales and quips.

Willoughby’s girlfriend, Franklin writer Donna O’Neil, a former journalist, is the one who came up with the idea of selling a few other things in addition to the hatchets, hammers and hacksaws.

“I added some things that were gift items,” she says. “Things you might not typically see in a hardware store.”

These include her “Redneck Survival Kit” -- one-gallon Mason jars filled with Vienna sausages, a bottle of water, rope, pocket knife and the like.

Other general store items include Spam, beer-bread mix, canned sardines and oysters. And, in addition to all the Viva! NashVegas merchandise, there are Handy Hardware T-shirts and soon a Handy Andy line of natural soaps and hand creams.

“We talked a long time about different items,” says O’Neil, noting that the show is important to the store, but meeting female needs is in general a healthy direction for a hardware store that competes with big, orange box stores and the like.

“With or without the show, the majority of our customers are women” and such items are designed to appeal to them, she says.

Oh, and Willoughby isn’t just the guy who runs the store that plays host to the country variety show.

He’s also featured in a segment called “Hey Andy, What’s On Sale?” in which he goes onto the stage and describes the monthly or weekly specials.

And then there is the education in “Hardware Store 101” offered by Willoughby.

“A lot of people who walk into the store are newcomers,” he says. They also are very surprised to see what’s inside. He’s not talking in this case about George V and his gang of guitarzans and the like.

“The people in their 20s and 30s have never been in a store like this,” says Willoughby. “They only know a hardware store as being a Home Depot or a Lowe’s.”

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