In the late 19th century, Francis Roger Chown set out with his wife and six children from Canada on a ship bound for Portland. They eventually landed in the city where he would open F.R. Hardware in 1879. The family business is still running strong today.
This year, the Chown family celebrated the 140th birthday of the store, now known as Chown Hardware.
Kyle Chown, F.R.’s great-great-grandson and current store president, told “Think Out Loud” that Chown Hardware had cycled through five generations of ownership and many phases of innovation since its opening.
The earliest ad Kyle has seen for the store called it a “dealer and builder in home furnishings.” F.R. sold general woodworking tools and an assortment of odds and ends: fancy birdcages, flower baskets, horse harnesses, cookware and cutlery.
At one point, they sold the most hunting and fishing licenses anywhere in the state.
But over time, the Chowns adjusted their goods to fit into Portland’s blooming hardware market and fluctuating customer base.
In the 1990s, big-box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s were pricing the family business out of competition. They needed to leave the tool market, and Kyle’s grandmother Eleanor Chown had an idea.
“At that point in time, my grandmother knew that this was her moment to put her mark on the business,” Kyle said.
Eleanor Chown knew that Portland lacked a decorative plumbing and hardware store. A sharp-eyed world traveler, she had amassed a collection of ornate light fixtures, figurines and home finishings. Eleanor herself was already selling these items in showrooms across the city. Why not bring them into the business?
“She took that chance,” Kyle Chown said. “Now, half of our business, and probably the most public-facing half of our business, is the decorative hardware, plumbing and lighting piece that was started by my grandmother.”
Choices like this have kept the hardware store from falling behind its customer base, or sprinting ahead of it.
“It takes a bold sense of who you are as a company, and where you want to go, and knowing what you can and cannot do,” Kyle said. “And a whole lot of luck.”
Now, nine Chowns are involved with running the store — the most in history. Most share memories of doing inventory, counting screws and springs in the store, early on.
“I think one of the challenges is trying to allow all of the voices to be heard because they are all worth a great deal,” Kyle Chown said.
Kyle feels great pressure to keep the operation grinding toward the next generation of family ownership. His grandfather described this pressure as “the golden handcuffs.”
“You have this wonderful thing that’s presented to you in your life because you’re born into a family business … but it can chain you in a way,” he said.
What’s the next evolution of Chown Hardware?
“I know it’s there,” Kyle said. “I don’t know what it is yet. But I certainly feel it.”
To hear more from Kyle Chown’s conversation with “Think Out Loud,” click the “play” arrow at the top of the page.