Nikiski, Alaska, is one of those towns that is quintessentially Alaskan, and while the town is home to just 4,316 residents and has no stoplights, it is a thriving community with deep roots.
One family has been a part of the town’s tapestry since homesteaders settled the land and Alaska became a state, and they continue to keep their family and the town’s history alive. These modern-day homesteaders run the town’s only hardware store, Nikiski Hardware & Supply, which provides the products residents need and serves as a community hub.
The store opened in October 2019, and is owned and managed by six family members, Louis and Stacy Oliva, their daughter Amber Douglas and her husband Jon Douglas, the Olivas’ other daughter, Jakie Oliva, and John Quick, whose wife is a cousin to the Olivas.
Nikiski had been home to a small hardware store for about 30 years, but when the owner passed away, the family shut the store down. Quick says he and his family members decided to open up a hardware store because they were tired of driving to the next town for a two-by-four or nails.
“A hardware store is one of those essential pieces of a town and we wanted to bring that back to Nikiski,” Quick says. “We have deep roots in this community and want to see it succeed.”
Building a Business
Each of the six owners also own other full-time businesses outside the hardware store, and brought together their talents to open and manage the store.
“We’ve all dabbled in everything from owning a construction company to being an interior designer, from oil field services to online businesses,” Quick says. “We merged all of those skills together to make the store look cool, serve the construction industry, utilize online marketing and have connections in the oil field business who purchase supplies from our store.”
While working with family often gets a bad rap, Quick says all of the owners work well together, meeting about once a week to discuss business goals and operations.
“We decided early on that we weren’t going to take offense to things; we have a business to run and a community to serve,” he says. “If we didn’t have a business together, we would be friends, as well as family. The business is a bonus; it’s not the anchor of our existence.”
While they all had experience owning a business, none of the owners came in with hardware experience. They partnered with their hardware wholesaler to determine the best product mix, which helped them get the store stocked.
The store currently has five employees, and Quick says they have been fortunate to have no issues hiring, receiving dozens of applications each time they announce a job opening.
“While there is a national workforce shortage, when we have job openings for part-time staff, we’re getting the who’s who to apply with us, and they are leaving jobs at big-box stores to come work for us,” he says.
Customer service is the No. 1 component of Nikiski Hardware’s company culture. Quick says the management team does not tolerate substandard customer service from their employees. Everyone on staff works to treat everyone with respect and in turn, hopefully receive the same respect from their customers.
“We give veteran’s discounts and have dedicated parking spots for veterans and moms with kids,” Quick says. “Instead of just talking about these things to show respect, we actually go and do them. A lot of people talk about how they want to be kind to others, but we go and create a parking spot in the front for them.”
Even the company’s marketing strategy aligns with their culture of family and respect with a focus on being positive. The owners want the Nikiski Hardware brand to be something people want to be a part of and get behind.
“Our brand strives to be an authentic arm of who the owners are naturally. If you were to meet us, the last thing we want to talk about is trying to get you to buy a hammer at our store; we’d rather talk to you about our community and the cool things going on,” Quick says. “We try to make our marketing an extension of who we are as people, positive and affirming.”
Building From Scratch
Nikiski Hardware & Supply also had to build the physical part of the business—buildings and products—from the ground up. Jon Douglas, who is a master craftsman, built the physical store with his brother, who also now works at the store. Amber, Stacy and Jakie provided the vision for the look of the store and took over the design piece of the building. The original building had no heat and running water, so Quick says they had a blank slate to work with when putting together the store. The owners decided to take a nostalgic approach and honor the homesteading history of their family and the town.
The store is full of reclaimed wood from the homes, barns and buildings the original homesteaders built in Nikiski. They added sheet metal for a rustic look.
“The materials come from the first people who lived in our town, which is a really cool connection to Nikiski,” Quick says.
Even the shelves are reclaimed wood because Quick says buying new shelving was cost-prohibitive. So, he sought reclaimed shelving and was able to find it for pennies on the dollar.
Along with building the physical business from the ground up, the owners have built a positive reputation in the area. The store stocks many items residents need, like tools, housewares and clothing, and residents know they can rely on the owners to help out whenever they can.
“Someone can come into our hardware store and have one of the owners help them find what they need, and even have them go to their house and install it for free,” Quick says. “On days we’re closed, we’ll open the store if a customer has a pipe burst or some other emergency. They all know us in the town and will call us on our cell phones if they need something.”
When it came to stocking the store, the ownership team relied on their wholesaler’s expertise but also their own shopping experiences. When Nikiski didn’t have a hardware store, the owners would shop at the big-box store 30 minutes away and a hardware store 35 minutes away. They stocked their own store with products they need the most and some items residents can’t find anywhere else in town.
Quick recognizes that they cannot compete with the big-box prices on large home improvement projects, so the store focuses on providing the products residents need for smaller DIY projects. The store also caters to workers in the oil industry, selling items such as work boots and fire-retardant clothing.
From the beginning, the owners decided they wanted the store to become a community hub. There were very few community events throughout the year, so they wanted Nikiski Hardware to be a spot where the community could gather for fellowship and entertainment. The store’s first events brought in over 500 people, more than 10 percent of the overall population of Nikiski.
Nikiski Hardware hosts an annual holiday event, Christmas Extravaganza, where it partners with local nonprofit Operation Children First to hand out Christmas gifts to kids and families. Event attendees can cozy up to the outdoor bonfire, make s’mores, go sledding on a specially made hill and take pictures with Santa’s reindeer. Kids can also visit and take pictures with the “real” Santa and receive a special surprise. Last year, one of the owners also organized several pop-up shops featuring local stores in the area so the adults could shop while the kids played.
“It was great to see kids tell Santa they wanted a big yellow Tonka truck for Christmas, and then we literally pulled out a big yellow Tonka truck for them right then and there,” Quick says. “Last year, we were able to hand out around 450 gifts to kids. It was a blessing for us to be able to do this.”
Every Saturday morning, Nikiski North Star Elementary PE teacher Colby Way reads to kids and their parents at the store. The free book reading is recorded and posted on the store’s Facebook page. Nikiski Reads started during the pandemic, when there was no in-person school and the store owners were looking for a way to make a positive impact during a challenging time.
“Every adult has that one teacher they remember when they were a kid who impacted them in a big way. Mr. Way is that kind of teacher for our little school in Alaska,” Quick says. “He is always going above and beyond. He is the real deal.”
One week, children’s author Chris Van Dusen did a live reading of one of his books for the store. He ended up reading to every elementrary school in the district over Zoom wearing his Nikiski Hardware hat, Quick says.
Along with Christmas Extravaganza and Nikiski Reads, Nikiski Hardware & Supply hosts a summer car show, a farmer’s market and other events during the year.
“We do these events with no hidden agenda of wanting people to buy a bunch from us; we do them to serve the community and to have fun,” Quick says. “We love our community, and this is a tangible way to show our love.”
Looking Toward the Future
In the short time it’s been open, Nikiski Hardware has evolved from a simple hardware store to a community hub and local hangout.
Several months after the store opened, Jakie opened and now runs a coffee shop inside the store called the Olde Goat Cafe, named after one of her favorite pets. The cafe serves coffee, sandwiches, soups, salads and baked goods and has a sitting area with tables and chairs for enjoying a hot cup of coffee on a cold Alaska day and time with friends and family. Customers can also purchase to-go sandwiches, wraps and snacks from the Grab + GOat fridge.
This fall, Nikiski Hardware & Supply will celebrate its third anniversary, and the ownership team looks to what’s next for the business. Quick says they want to continue doing what they’ve been doing, which is running a hardware store that focuses on customer service, provides the products residents need and serves as a community hub for Nikiski.
“We don’t have plans to open 15 stores; we have plans to keep doing what we’re doing and keep on doing it well. If we can look back in 10 years and have accomplished those things, then I think we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Quick says. “It’s simple, but it’s how we think about things.”
Making It Work Remotely
See how two other hardware retailers have created successful operations in remote locations in the U.S. here.
Where It Started
NHPA’s Renee Changnon spoke with some of the owners of Nikiski Hardware & Supply on Episode 12 of her podcast, “Tell Me More…” Listen here.