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This Hardware Store Does What Amazon Can’t: Blinking Lights, Santa Claus, and a Harpist in the Tool Aisle

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Barry Hight compares McGuckin Hardware during the holidays to Disneyland. Also to an Irish Pub. For McGuckin, a 62-year-old Boulder, Colorado stalwart, seasonal celebrations are a joyful, community-pleasing solution to the end-of-yard-work doldrums.

This year the changeover started at the end of October. Ten workers descended on the 5,000-square-foot central corridor that spans three departments. Out went the grills and the fans and lawnmowers. In came the German nutcrackers and Russian dolls and Nativity sets. Up went the arcs built by staff to showcase strands of lights, so customers can compare varieties as they glow, blink, or change color.

A working train tootles around a vast holiday village diorama while a motorized miniature ski lift and gondola operate nearby. Employees dressed as elves patrol the aisles, and Jim Jenson from the tools department reprises his role as Santa, handing out candy canes and taking selfies with customers. “He walks around instead of sitting there, so it’s not like [the movie] A Christmas Story,” says Barry Hight, president of the family-owned business. “The kids aren’t scared and crying.”

McGuckin’s Jason Hight, Manager, Dave Hight, CEO and founder, and Barry Hight, President.

CREDIT: Morgan Rachel Levy

McGuckin has always been Boulder’s holiday mecca, and this year that role is more important than ever. Many independent hardware stores belong to co-ops, and McGuckin recently switched its affiliation from True Value to Ace. Ace is “very aggressive in the marketplace on how we are going to compete with Amazon and the big boxes,” says Hight. McGuckin’s tradition of personal service and experiential retail–which it practiced long before that term came into vogue–buoys sales when cold weather impedes home and yard work. (Finding seasonal workers isn’t a problem: people shift from departments like gardening and outside mechanicals.)

McGuckin’s snow globe section of the holiday aisle.

CREDIT: Morgan Rachel Levy

The store also is expanding nontraditional lines like clothing. It is the largest local purveyor of such brands as Darn Tough socks, and picked up the popular Woolrich line of blankets when a 100-year-old retailer succumbed to the rising costs of operating downtown.

But McGuckin remains a hardware store at heart, albeit a distinctive one, attracting inventors and DIY-ers from across the region. Hight is a maker in his own right. One big holiday seller is a long pole with a hook on the end used to lift lights onto the upper reaches of tall trees. Hight devised his own version when the tool’s supplier went out of business and now manufactures it in the warehouse.

McGuckin’s cashier supervisor, Martha Sparn.

CREDIT: Morgan Rachel Levy

McGuckin also encourages young makers with Saturday morning workshops: build your own snow globe (mason jar, glycerine) or menorah (clothes pins, wood glue). There’s entertainment for the parents as well. Local food businesses like Sherpa Chai and Colorado Hemp Honey hand out samples; employees demonstrate their favorite recipes on the store’s housewares. Nothing sells pizzelle makers like the sweet cookie scent wafting through the aisles.

Nancy Brace plays harp near the center of the store. When she started performing at McGuckin around 25 years ago, she was in the tool aisle. As the season progresses, Brace and her trio will play as much as 30 hours a week. And they won’t be alone. “We have customers drop by and play with them,” says Hight. “There’s an amazing tenor. And a gentleman who plays the saw. He will bring it in and play a few Christmas songs. Then off he goes.”

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