When Ken McRae was a little kid, his dad would pay him a nickel for every gallon he could fill with kerosene or paint thinner.
If he filled 20 gallons, he could ride his bike to the Texas Theatre and pay for admission to the Saturday matinee and a big pickle.
His dad, Henry McRae, in 1948 opened a business on South Hampton that would become McRae’s Paint and Hardware. Now, after 67 years in business, McRae’s is closing. Ken and his wife, Doris, have been running the store for decades, and they are ready to retire. Their two sons have successful careers of their own — 40-year-old Nathan works in the security industry, and 37-year-old Christopher is a district manager for Starbucks in Los Angeles.
There’s no one to take over the business, and besides, it has floundered in the years since Home Depot opened on Fort Worth Avenue, around the same time Walmart and Lowe’s opened on Cockrell Hill.
The little hardware store, where the owners know customers by name and can look up paint colors they had mixed in the 1980s, is a relic of times when shopping local was the only choice.
“It was pretty much a disaster for us,” Ken McRae says of the nearby big-box stores. “My prices are about the same, but I’ve never had the advertising dollars to remind people of it.”
But let’s go back to more fortunate times.
Henry McRae, having served in World War II, opened an Army/Navy Surplus store at the corner of Hampton and Clarendon in 1948, the same year his son was born. Always handy, he soon expanded to appliance and TV repair. Then he became a bonded locksmith and added keys and locks to the business. In 1952, he started selling paint. A few years later, the elder McRae commissioned his own brand of paint from a subsidiary of Benjamin Moore. The store offered McRae Paint for decades.
In 1963, Henry McRae built a new building across the street, at 1232 S. Hampton. Now that building is on the market.
Ken McRae went to Greiner Middle School and graduated from Sunset High School. Doris McRae, who originally is from Germany, graduated from Kimball.
He served in the U.S. Coast Guard during Vietnam.
“I had 30 days of leave every year, and my dad expected me to be in the store,” he says. “So I would be there.”
He left the military in 1974 and went to work fulltime in the family business. Henry McRae died in 1979 and Ken McRae ran the business mostly by himself, sometimes 100 hours a week, until around 1993. By then, their sons were in high school, so Doris came to work in the store fulltime, too.
After the big box stores came in, Ken McRae expanded with a printing business making business cards and banners, which he plans to continue operating.
After decades in the hardware business, Ken and Doris know their stuff. And they make sure they always know what they’re talking about.
“The thing I learned the quickest is to not adlib the answer, but to find out the correct answer,” he says. “There was a moral conviction to make sure I was giving the correct information.”
The McRaes now have third-generation customers who say their grandparents told them to shop there. Ken and Doris celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary last month. They reduced prices on some big-ticket items, and they stopped restocking, but they hadn’t yet told their customers they were closing, possibly as early as next month.
With his newfound free time, Ken has plans to travel to Costa Rica early next year to help finish a school.
“I’m healthy, and I want to be able to do things with my wife without punching a clock,” he says.