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Eli Bliffert contemplates store expansion to include hardware for the home user as well as builders.

Still Old and Dusty: Bliffert Lumber Plans a New Store

The corner of Humboldt and Chambers is getting crowded with new businesses, but feels more like sharing a couch with close friends during a Packers game than maneuvering through a teeming bar. The latest business to sidle up on the couch carries a familiar name, but will have a new face. Bliffert Lumber and Fuel Co. plans to move from its existing location at 1014 E. Chambers St. – which has served as the family-owned business’s headquarters since the early 1900s – to a new building under construction just to the west. With the move also comes the addition of an 1,000-square foot hardware store, a first for the almost 104-year-old company. The store is slated to open in the summer or fall. “We’ve never had anywhere near this much space, or resources dedicated to selling hard lines, so it certainly is a gamble for us,” says Eli Bliffert, vice-president. Bliffert is the fifth generation in the family business. He’s the great-grandson of J.P. Bliffert, who first expanded the company beyond its Northside yard. While Bliffert views other hardware stores in he city, such as Crown Hardware and Brady Street Hardware, as effectively serving the members of their respective communities, he sees specific needs in the Riverwest neighborhood. At the risk of over-generalizing about the neighborhood, Bliffert believes that Riverwest residents generally avoid big-box retail stores. The new store will provide a very accessible alternative to large corporations with many of the same amenities, such as a rental center. Bliffert says that, as a non-corporate organization that plans to be in the community another 100 years, they plan for long-term sustainability rather than “short-term profitability.” This business strategy allows them to be profitable while still maintaining their principles, like buying local. Illustrated by two of his employees who bike to work, Bliffert knows that location plays a major role in where people choose to spend their money and time. He believes other benefits also stem from this proximity: “If you can’t shop someplace where you have a fairly good chance of running into some of the ownership, you ought not to shop there.” Though acknowledging that big-box hardware and lumber retailers have a purpose, he can’t justify spending money that doesn’t get put back in the community. “We want to be a mix of a family-owned local hardware store, and a builders’ hardware store,” he explains. “And we think we can do that because we have an existing customer base.” Distinct locations In much the same way as lumber still expands or contracts in response to outside conditions, Bliffert sees each of the company lumberyards as responding to the neighborhoods where they reside. The lumberyard in Oak Creek is suburban; the yard on 35th Street is industrial. Bliffert describes the Northside location as having an “old Riverwest flavor,” right along the old Beerline. The quaint office holds at least 30 old deeds in a safe from Bliffert’s great-grandfather, J.P., who helped people build and buy houses in the neighborhood. The business is one of, if not the, oldest in Riverwest. At their Southside location, Bliffert has seen the workforce change from predominately Polish to more Latino. Other than the racial makeup of the employees, the yard hasn’t changed. “We sell millwork, moldings and trim stuff that you can’t find anyplace else,” Bliffert says. Customers who come into the Southside location often find hard-to-match pieces from when their homes were built many years ago. Bliffert doesn’t pay much mind to trends in these details. He says the customers’ luck is because, “We just never stopped selling it. Part of it is we’re not that bright,” he jokes. “All my family does is sell lumber.” Bliffert almost veered from most of his family’s life path. After graduating from UW-Stevens Point, he moved to Milwaukee to attend graduate school, but needed a summer job. He called his uncle Fred Bliffert, local musician and president of the company, and asked for work. In 1993, after Fred Bliffert simply said, “This is what we do,” Eli knew he was going to sell lumber. And he doesn’t foresee closing any of the yards, but rather transforming them into “urban retail lumber yards,” he said. With the lumberyards reflecting their surroundings, how does Bliffert, as part of these surroundings, see himself in them? “Old and dusty,” he grins. “We like them that way. Old, dusty and paid for.”