Across the street from the county courthouse, Vivroux's, the oldest True Value Hardware store in Texas, survives by offering personal, friendly service that is the hallmark of small town retail stores around the country. When customers walk in the front door there is someone nearby ready to give them a big smile and a friendly, "Can I help you find something?"
Quite often that someone at the front door is Gene Vivroux, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Jacob Vivroux, a German merchant in the Napoleonic age. Jacob's son Carl came to San Antonio from Europe in the 1850s and was a blacksmith and hardware merchant. His son Philip moved to Seguin to open a hardware business in 1869 instead of entering the priesthood like his parents wanted. It was Philip's son and Gene's grandfather, Charles Joseph (C.J.) Vivroux, who built the family's business empire in Seguin.
During the first half of the 20th century, C.J. invested in a range of businesses including car dealerships, ranches, stores, and real estate. Some of the investments paid off, some didn't, but he built a reputation of honesty and service. When he passed away in 1941, he was one of the area's best-loved citizens.
By the time the store celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1969, the family's empire had become tangled in several generations of brothers, sisters, and cousins. "We were lucky to have a CPA who divided up all of the property so everyone left happy," Gene said of the subsequent inheritances. Gene's father and uncle took over the hardware and variety store. Of the businesses at the time of the partition, it is the only one that survives with the Vivroux name.
Gene took over management of the store in 1970, the same year the business joined the True Value co-op for the second time. His grandfather had joined the original True Value chain in the 1930s. Today, the store takes up three store fronts on the west side of the courthouse square with the garden supply store in one, the variety store in another, and the hardware store in between.
"Visitors are amazed that they can still find variety store items on our shelves," Gene said, "and most items are cheaper than at the super stores." Connected by an opening cut in the wall to the hardware store, the variety store survives by selling what Woolworth's once did. Plastic flowers, toys, sewing supplies, and kitchen utensils share space with souvenirs, T-shirts, and socks.
In the back of the variety store is a small lunch counter that was added in 1946. The counter is in three "U" shapes so the waitress who runs the short order grill can serve more customers. "We put the coffee pot on at seven, but the cook doesn't come in until 8am," Gene said. Most of the lunch counter business is folks coming in for sodas, shakes, or coffee. "The district attorney is in every day because we let him smoke," Gene said. "When court is in session we do real well."
"I remember going to Woolworth's in San Antonio as a kid," he said. "It's sad to see them go, but I can understand where Woolworth's is coming from." Competing against discount retail chains can be a hard for small businesses, too.
Vivroux Hardware survives by offering services that aren't profitable enough for the big retail chains, but attract shoppers. They make keys, and sell lottery tickets and out-of-town newspapers. The store's 20 employees, most of whom work part-time, try to learn the customers' names. "We have people who come into the store once a week or more," Gene said, "If you lose one customer it snowballs because they tell their friends."
The store on Austin Avenue is open Monday through Friday, 7am-6:15pm. "We stay open that extra 15 minutes because most other places close at six and it gives people time to still get here after they close," he said. The store does most of its business on weekends when it is open on Saturdays, 7am-5:30pm, and Sundays, 8:30am-4:30pm. The lunch counter serves breakfast, burgers, and a lunch special for less than $2 Monday through Friday, 8am-4pm. On Saturdays it's open by request and is closed on Sundays.
Coming up this weekend...
New Canaan Farms Jam Hour has been resurrected at the Stage Stop Ranch near Wimberley off RR32. The popular musical variety show featuring The Doc Toler Medicine Show is an addition to the ranch that has rental horses, a petting farm, and cabins, Aug. 2. 800/782-4378.
Firemen's Fiesta at the Brenham Firemen's Training Center raises funds for
the fire department with lots of games, food, and music,
Aug. 1-3. 888/BRE-NHAM.
Schulenburg Festival in Schulenburg's Wolters Park revives old-fashioned fun for everyone, Aug. 1-3. 409/743-4514.
Birthday Celebration in Seguin honors the town's 159th anniversary with a day full of activities, Aug. 9. 210/379-7771.
Star Watch at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose takes advantage of the clear nights to see the annual Perseid meteor shower at its peak, Aug. 9. Lodging available, 817/897-2960.
Soaring Competition at the Uvalde Flight Center is one of the largest
glider competitions in the world, Aug. 10-16. 210/278-4481.