Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Rockler woodworking store in North Cambridge, seen Sunday, has announced its permanent closing. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Rockler Woodworking and Hardware announced Wednesday that it is closing its Cambridge location at the end of the year. All merchandise at the Porter Square store is 30 percent off until doors close forever Dec. 30.

Staff members and customers expressed their disappointment. “Based on the customer response we’re seeing, it’s a really devastating loss to the community,” store manager Peter Rochibaud said Thursday.

The store has a legacy in Cambridge, having opened on Massachusetts Avenue in 1983, when it was called The Woodworker’s Store. Employees say their commitment to their customers is reminiscent of an earlier time too, making for a kind of store experience that has fallen out of fashion at other chain hardware stores. Rockler stocks everything from lumber to drill bits and offers expert advice as well as woodworking classes.

The store Thursday was abuzz; nearly every customer that came in demanded to know why they were closing.

“It’s really kind of sad, because there’s nothing wrong with the store. It just doesn’t fit what Rockler wants to be the model,” staff member Nick Land said. “They want stores that are much larger.”

Rockler is crowded Sunday with shoppers. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Vice president of retail at Rockler Joe Kester, based in Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, confirmed the issue: “The size and accessibility limitations of the Cambridge location hinders our ability to present the great retail experience that we strive to offer for our customers across the country at our newer store models.”

Former employee Palo Coleman, who was in Rockler on Thursday as a customer, said he knew the Cambridge location had not been a priority of the parent company’s for a while. “They never fixed certain things, they wouldn’t fix the lights,” Coleman said. “The store is small, it’s old, it’s just not what they want their image to be.”

Shoppers on Sunday were grieving the store’s closing but appreciating the closing sales. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The company’s roots go back to 1954, when Norton Rockler started Minnesota Woodworkers Supply Co. in Minneapolis. Though he died in 2020, his company lives on as a source for woodworking and hardware needs. There are 49 stores nationwide, most concentrated in California and Texas, where there are seven each. There are few on the East Coast, and the Cambridge location is the only one in Massachusetts.

“It’s a resource for knowledge and expert advice,” said Rochibaud, who has worked at Rockler for 18 years, a dozen of them as manager. “Yes, we sell products, but it’s really more about the experience you get when you come into the store.”

In-store experts

Ken Loomis, who was shopping Thursday, said he’s “very sad” about the closing. Clint Clements, another customer, said Rockler occupies a niche. “I come here when I can’t find things at the big hardware stores,” Clements said.

Clements, who travels from Wellesley to visit Rockler, said he often shops online anyway – so he’ll continue to shop with the company, but will miss the in-store experience.

Once it closes, the closest option for Rockler shoppers will be Salem, New Hampshire. They can shop online like Clements, but that doesn’t give shoppers what an in-person store does, said Coleman, who worked at Rockler for seven years.

“To work here, you have to know a ton,” Coleman said. “People come from all over to find what they need, to ask questions, and they come here because they know the people who work here actually have answers.”

What’s next, and where to turn

Coleman, who now teaches at the Lexington Arts & Crafts Society and Umbrella Arts Cellar in Concord, said the real shame of the closing is Cambridge residents losing that resource. “The expertise is what sets Rockler apart. We’re all way overskilled and underpaid; the reason I got a job here was not for the pay – it was to be around other woodworkers and get to help customers who cared,” Coleman said.

Rockler workers don’t earn commission on what customers buy, so “what I recommended was whatever was really the best thing for a customer,” Coleman said. “Now they’re going to go online, and people who might have questions or don’t really know what they’re looking for will end up getting the wrong thing or not knowing what to get, and they will lose time and money.”

Woodworkers in the area may yet have sources to turn to, such as Longleaf Lumber and Anderson & McQuaid in the Cambridge Highlands, and the community around the makerspaces at The Foundry community building in East Cambridge. What’s next for the Massachusetts Avenue space is unclear.

As for the possibility of a new store in Massachusetts – one that could offer customers the Rockler experience while fitting the corporation’s ideas about size and features – “it’s possible,” Land said, “but I don’t think it will happen.”

This story was updated Nov. 6, 2023, to correct a typo on the name of Palo Coleman.