Support your local hardware store

Remember that scene from “The Longest Yard” when Burt Reynolds’ incarcerated character snaps his fingers, and boxes of sparkling new football uniforms are delivered to his rag-tag team of inmates just in time for their big showdown with the guards?

That was a great moment for prison procurement. One feels inspired by it.

One gets a very different feeling from the procurement policy of the real-life Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, Md.

Here’s how Bill Harris, owner and operator of two Ace Hardware stores in Maryland, explains it:

“My wife, who runs the Princess Anne store near the prison, was told by a supplier, ‘Have you heard about the new mandate? The prison system is going to be buying from Grainger from now on.’ ”

A few days later, a UPS driver breaks some news to Harris: “I hate to tell you this, but I just delivered 40 Grainger boxes to the prison.”

Illinois-based industrial supply house: 2; Local hardware store: 0.

During a period of rising concern for Main Street businesses and growing sentiment for support-your-local-store, the long-range procurement policy seems out of touch. It’s the anti-cash mob for downtown businesses.

Harris believes an important principle is being trampled.

“This is sad not just for me, but for the community,” Harris said. “It’s going to affect local jobs and hiring, and it’s money going to an out-of-state company.

“Why can’t the state see that if they shop local, the local economy will benefit?” Harris asks, with airtight logic.

We called the warden of the prison. Couldn’t get through. But at the Maryland Department of General Services, which manages procurement for the prison, spokeswoman Susan Woods said: “This is basically to protect taxpayer interests and streamline the quality service across the board.” 

I’d call it penny-wise, pound-foolish, but that would concede that Grainger offers better pricing, and Harris will not concede that.

The rule has been in place since at least 2007, according to Woods. That’s news to Harris. And it was also news to Senator Jim Mathias, who called Harris after a local newspaper article brought light to his position. “He told me, ‘I’m in your corner,’ ” Harris recalled.

For the record, Harris is no fair-weather hardware store retailer looking for special treatment. Seventeen years ago, a Walmart opened in his small town on the bypass. Six months later he packed up and moved out to the highway. “I had to do it to survive,” he said. “I had to be out where they were.” Then five years ago, Lowe’s opened some 500 ft. away.

He’s a survivor.

In “The Longest Yard,” the inmates beat the guards. Is there a happy ending for Harris Ace Hardware? Harris has an answer:

“It’s amazing the number of people who have come into both of our stores and said, ‘We’re glad you said something. We’re with you. We’re going to continue to shop right here.’ ”

— Ken Clark


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