When Libby Murphy, of Gatlinburg Ace Hardware, began to describe to a reporter how she and her team In the aftermath of Gatlinburg's devastating firestorm gave away home-made ash sifters made out of Ace buckets, she had to pause and suppress the emotion.
Her passion for the community was showing again.
“This store was a place of healing and hope,” she said. And it still is.
Murphy and her team were congratulated during the co-op's recent convention for their pursuit of amazing service during the fire, a "perfect storm" that obliterated Gatlinburg on Nov. 28. Through luck, and relentless effort, the store was saved and up on its feet.
It was a close call. A Napa Auto Parts store three doors away was completely destroyed. And in a city of 4,000, some 2,500 homes and cabins were lost, along with 70 businesses. "It's unfathomable," she said.
It just so happened that a former store employee was part of the fire fighting crew. It just so happened that the wind seemed to shift at a right angle when it approached the store. And after the fire, it just so happened that Murphy's team had friends in the police department who agreed to allow an Ace truck loaded with clean-up products to pass through closed streets.
But Murphy doesn't believe it was luck. “We were just doing what we feel like we were called to do," she said.
One important objective was to get the hardware store open as soon as possible after the fire. “I called the mayor and explained that we’re a service to the community and we gotta be open,” she recalls. “ And he said, ‘you’re absolutely right.’”
In the aftermath, Libby managed an ad hoc relief fund, combining cash from the store’s till and a contribution from a distant church. Fifty dollars here, fifty dollars there, all for people in need, she said.
"It makes them feel like they're not alone and there are people in the community who want to help," she said. "We're absolutely in it for the long haul."
Ace CEO John Venhuizen described the store’s effort as committed to the community in a way that Amazon.com will never be. And that he said, is one of the greatest strengths of the independent hardware store.
Today Gatlinburg Ace continues to do what she can to support the community comeback. Promoting the slogan “Gatlinburg Strong” on the store’s marquee, keeping its workforce employed, and planning ways to reinvent itself as a retail business.
Meanwhile the sifter buckets have earned a place in Gatlinburg lore. “There were a lot of Children’s Miracle Network buckets with the Ace logo on them,” she said. “I wanted Ace to be visible because they were here to help.”