Leonard Branstetter, owner of one of Ahwatukee’s oldest businesses, died Feb. 6 after a two-month illness.
Mr. Branstetter, 90, and his widow Karilyn owned and operated Plaza Hardware since 1981, when Ahwatukee extended no farther south than Elliott Road.
The store was such a part of their lives that an informal remembrance gathering will be held 2-3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12, in front of Plaza Hardware in the Mountainside Plaza, 4025 E. Chandler Blvd., Ahwatukee.
“So many people, especially in Lakeside, depended on that store,” said his daughter, Chere Crandall. “The store was their life and the customers were their friends.”
It’s likely the store will close and its inventory sold off when its lease expires in May, Crandall said, because “they tried to sell it but the lease is so high no one wanted to buy it.”
Despite his age, Mr. Branstetter came to work every day, and only about a year ago had given up his pool cleaning service that ocne had been a big part of his business.
In a story in the Ahwatukee Foothills News in August, Mr. Branstetter said that when he first opened, he was determined to make the store the place to find nuts and bolts, tools and plumbing hardware, pool service and supplies, and anything else local do-it-your-self homeowners might need.
“I like to work. I’ve never minded it, and I’ve worked since I was 18,” he said at the time. “Pools are a big business in Ahwatukee.”
When he first opened Plaza Hardware, he previously had built and remodeled pools in Scottsdale. He saw no reason to stop pool service with the new endeavor. So he and as many as four other employees drove to Scottsdale daily to continue to service those pools.
He estimated that he has installed 5,000 pool motors since 1981.
Mr. Branstetter was an Iowa transplant. Karilyn attended the University of Arizona starting in 1950, studying music education. He arrived in Arizona in 1965 after running a family feed and grain business in Iowa.
They married in 1968.
Hardware is not in as much demand today from independent stores like theirs, he said, because many handymen are taking care of the repairs that homeowners used to perform themselves. Some of the handymen tend to get their supplies from retail chains.
The Branstetters employed only one pool repair and service person and about six part-time store clerks. Their staff includes retirees with engineering, law enforcement and other skilled backgrounds.
What hadn’t changed with time was the Mr. Branstetter‘s business philosophy: “Treat customers as I’d like to be treated. Make a profit, but treat the other guy so he can live with it.”
He confided that when they set pricing on expensive pool parts, they tended to err on the side of the customer.
“A lot of people are living on the edge of their incomes. A new pump is so expensive. I really feel for them,” he said.
Customers tended to rave with delight about Plaza Hardware, both online and in person. Reviews on yelp.com give them 5-stars for service.
“Ahwatukee grew up around them. They make everyone feel like family,” said airline pilot Scott Williamson. “I like the pet-friendly store. It’s like Americana, the way it used to be.”
Life outside the hardware store for the Branstetters would begin after 6 p.m. six days a week. On Saturday nights, they would head to their cabin near Prescott. They finished the cabin interior themselves.
They loved to travel and had especially fond memories of a small ship on which they traveled around Cape Cod and the nearby islands. They also particularly enjoyed a Vancouver-to-Banff train trip through the Canadian Rockies.
Asked how they keep up their energy, he credited his wife’s cooking: “She’s one of the best cooks you’ll ever see.”
Karilyn modestly claimed that she cooks meat and potatoes, implying it’s nothing special.
But, except during family visits, she refuses to use a microwave except to store things.
Mr. Branstetter had finally decided last year that he wanted to retire and travel fulltime with his wife, stating, “I only have about 10 good more years.”
Besides his widow and Chere Crandall, Mr. Branstetter is survived by two other daughters, Kristine and Sally, and two sons, Keith and Jerry.