Billed as Cook County’s oldest hardware store, Jebens Hardware of Blue Island to close after 143 years
The first signs are showing that Jebens Hardware is closing after serving customers in Blue Island for 143 years.
Store manager Judy Tuma said the store no longer restocks items, and empty pegs appear on shelves in some places. Inventory liquidation begins May 29, she said, and the store will be empty by July 20.
“I should have done this five years ago,” Tuma said of shutting down a business billed as Cook County’s oldest hardware store. “We hung on looking for a buyer, but time has run out.”
No one wanted to buy the business as a turnkey transaction, so the store that opened in 1876 will soon cease operations at 13311 Olde Western Ave.
“When (customers) realize we’re closing they’re devastated,” Tuma said. “They say, ‘Where are we going to go now?’”
Residents of historic homes in the area will no longer be able to walk in and get a brass valve to repair a steam radiator, or rope and pulleys to fix an old window.
“This is the place I could find things I couldn’t find anywhere else,” customer Donna Calderon of Blue Island said Tuesday afternoon during a visit to the store in search of hardware for window blinds.
The convenience of having a well-stocked hardware store nearby was a tremendous benefit to the neighborhood, but the customer service made stopping by Jebens a community experience.
“You could always count on a cup of coffee and a pastry,” Calderon said, gesturing toward a pot of brew in a corner near the main counter.
Above our heads, a toy train slowly chugged in an endless loop on a track near the ceiling. An antique toy truck and airplane remained on display, though Tuma said she recently removed a classic rocking horse from the front window display. She said she didn’t want anyone thinking it was for sale as the store liquidates its inventory.
Tuma’s magical holiday-themed window displays will no longer grace Olde Western Avenue at Christmastime. She made wonderful videos and shared them on social media about how the store contributed to the Blue Island community over the years.
In one video, Tuma, 64, chronicled how years ago Jebens operated a sheet metal shop and made furnaces.
“The steeple on First Lutheran Church was made in this room,” she narrated. “This is a community made up of businesses, churches, schools, people and friends.”
Tuma’s longtime partner, Art Bulmann, 76, bought the business in 1986. Bulmann is in Ohio recovering from recent open-heart surgery, Tuma said.
“I should be with him,” she said, but instead she’s handling arrangements for the liquidation. The hope is that Bulmann will make a full recovery and resumes restoring vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycles and pursuing other hobbies, she said.
The inventory of hardware products and parts will be priced to sell in coming weeks, but some heirloom items will not be for sale. Tuma said she hopes to donate a vintage washing machine formerly owned by “Grandma Cookie” Eleanor Martino to the Blue Island Historical Society.
Other keepsakes date back to a time of store founder Fred Jebens and his heirs who ran the store until the 1970s. There are framed historic photographs showing horses and buggies on dirt streets outside the store. Promotional calendars from the 1920s depict beautifully drawn Native Americans in natural settings.
One piece of nostalgia is for sale: a fully restored historic blue neon sign that was built in 1950 by Federal Sign & Signal, which was located three blocks away.
“We’ve had some interest in buying the sign,” Tuma said.
A real estate flyer that marketed the sale of the business said the store had 2,800 square feet of retail selling space, 3,500 square feet of warehouse space and 600 square feet of office space for a total of 6,900 square feet. The building contains an additional 1,400-square-foot apartment on the second floor.
Bulmann was willing to sell the business, inventory and real estate for $650,000, Tuma said, but there were no buyers.
“It’s a shame nobody took this on,” she said.
After the store is emptied, the building will be put up for sale, she said.
For now, it’s still mostly business as usual. Customers stop in to have keys made or to inquire about a hard-to-find specialty item. Tuesday afternoon featured a visit from Mark Mastantuono, 57, operations and sales manager for Blue Island-based D’Masti Catering, a third-generation business founded in 1945.
“As a kid I would come in here and there would be a myna bird in a cage,” Mastantuono said. The bird would repeat foul language it heard from customers and employees, he said.
Bulmann is incredibly knowledgeable about everything mechanical and hardware-related, he said. He also knew exactly where to find any item the store carried.
“I needed a piece for a faucet, and Art took me downstairs into the catacombs and he stopped in front of this box on a shelf. The box wasn’t even labeled, but inside there were about 100 of the part I needed,” Mastantuono said. “He is amazing.”
Mastantuono said he still cuts grass with a sickle his grandfather bought at Jebens years ago. Another time, he recalled, he sought Bulmann’s help matching the stain color for a wooden staircase spindle.
“Art took one look and said, ‘That’s orange shellac,’” he said. “Every old house in Blue Island has orange shellac.”
Specialty stores like Jebens could survive despite competition from big warehouse chain home-improvement stores, Tuma said. However, the store couldn’t compete with online shopping, she said.
“Internet sales are the killer,” Tuma said. “Our liquidator said hardware stores are not selling” as businesses to other potential operators. “They’re either closing or getting handed down to a family member. Nobody is buying a business like this.”