Still owned by his descendants, the hardware store that German immigrant Adam Kroner opened in 1868 in downtown La Crosse is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
Adam’s great-grandson Bill Kroner, who is 62, has managed Kroner’s True Value Hardware at 319 Pearl St. for the past 15 years. He still consults with his uncle, Jim Kroner, who is 91 and who is the founder’s grandson. Jim retired from the business in 2000.
Eight of Adam Kroner’s descendants own the business, which has been at the current location since the 1890s. It moved there from a smaller building in the 200 block of Pearl Street, where Adam Kroner started the business.
“In the early 1940s, there were four other hardware stores within two blocks of here,” Jim said. “They’re all gone.”
Kroner’s has reached its sesquicentennial year by establishing a niche and changing with the times, Jim and Bill agreed.
“It’s a tribute to my dad (Edgar A. Kroner, who died in 2013) and Jim working hand-in-hand for 50 years,” Bill said of the store’s long history.
“And to my dad (Edgar L. Kroner) and his brother William for the 50 years before that,” Jim added.
In recent decades, Kroner’s survived the openings of discount stores, home improvement stores, appliance stores and the 1980 opening of Valley View Mall, partly because of sales of hardware to builders. Sales of hardware, such as hinges and locks, to builders accounted for about 80 percent of the store’s sales just five years ago. They probably account for 65 to 70 percent of the store’s sales today, Bill estimated.
With more businesses opening downtown and more people living downtown in the past several years, the hardware store has expanded its selection and sales of items that they might need.
“We’ve tried to carry things that people need in their apartments” downtown, Bill said. “Things like laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, some office supplies and small kitchen appliances. And we serve businesses with things like ice melt, snow shovels, cleaning supplies” and office supplies.
Kroner’s continues to offer shoppers personalized service – for example, it continues to carry screws, nuts and bolts that can be purchased individually.
Walk-in traffic to the hardware store has increased in the past few years, Bill said. Most of the walk-in customers live in La Crosse County or the La Crescent, Minn., area.
“Having a major draw like Duluth Trading Company helps” bring more shoppers downtown, Bill said. “You’ve also got the big boats that stop in La Crosse in the summer,” with passengers who walk through the downtown. “And you’ve got the conventions at the La Crosse Center.”
A number of people from other countries also stop at the hardware store, Bill said. “This week we’ve had people from Korea and China here.” Some are college students, some are on paddlewheel passenger boats that dock at Riverside Park and others are visiting major local companies such as Trane.
The building’s high ceilings and old wooden floors remind shoppers of the store’s long history.
Adam Kroner originally sold hardware and stoves there. But the store hasn’t sold coal- or wood-burning stoves for decades. And it quit selling refrigerators, cooking stoves and clothes washers and dryers in the 1960s with the opening of appliance stores.
But there’s still a large variety of merchandise on two floors, plus the mezzanine, including hardware, power tools, hand tools, water coolers, snow sleds, outdoor equipment, toys and kitchen goods.
Some of the merchandise reflects the area’s ethnic heritage, such as lefse grills, crocks for making sauerkraut, and tins for making the Scandinavian cookie sandbakkels.
Bill said he tries to carry as much American-made merchandise as possible, such as custom knives made by Roger Larson of La Crosse.
Kroner’s has been a True Value hardware store since it joined the member-owned buying cooperative in the late 1950s, Jim said. “The buying power of so many stores give us an advantage,” he said of the reason for joining a retailer-owned buying group such as True Value. Most of today’s hardware stores belong to such groups.
The store has two employees besides Bill.