Best Electric & Hardware competes by carving out niche

Best Electric Hardware is Tulsa’s iconic mom-and-pop hardware store that for 36 years has answered homeowners’ do-it-yourself questions. The Welborn family still survives in the retail hardware business after its two main competitors went under five and 10 years ago.

Electrical engineer Leroy Welborn and wife Sharron, now 78 and 76, bought Best Electric in 1977 from Steve Osborne, who had started the electrical parts store a block south of the current location, 3647 S. Peoria Ave., in 1965.

At the time, Sharron ran the place and Leroy went out doing electrical contractor jobs. When not on jobs, he helped run the store and make sales and deliveries, getting to know more of the store’s neighborhood customers.

“During that time, we found out we could sell other things to the same customers ? hardware, gardening supplies and tools ? and so we changed the store name to Best Electric Hardware,” Leroy Welborn said. “Then added on and most of the second floor that is now the ‘parts loft,’ ” at the top of a long stair ? holding 60,000 parts in marked drawers, for fixing faucets and lights, etc.

Welborn claimed he can look at a unit and know exactly which of the 60,000 parts will be needed to do the job ? and all in 20 minutes or less, he said.

His son Greg, who is company owner and president, remembered how a move to a house in Maple Ridge helped guide the family’s hardware direction.

“All electrical wiring had to be replaced,” Greg Welborn said. “Our neighbors needed the same things, so we began stocking the parts. Then when people came in needing things, we would have them on hand ? or at least order them to be on hand for the next customer from that area.”

Greg helped Leroy pull wire and update the Maple Ridge house as a youth and later bought his own house in Florence Park that needed the same kind of TLC and special parts.

The glory days of the Tulsa hardware business were the 1960s through the 1980s, when Swinney’s Hardware in Kendall-Whittier, Burgess Hardware in west Tulsa and Best Electric Hardware, in midtown, ruled the do-it-yourself marketplace. Each held considerable ground in Tulsa and each carved out its own niche with its own philosophy.

Swinney’s Hardware, 32 S. Lewis Ave., was open from 1934 to 2008. After “big hardware” came along in the 1990s, the Swinney family began concentrating on obscure hardware items the big outlets didn’t stock.

Burgess Hardware, 1902 Southwest Blvd., served a more blue-collar clientele from 1943 to 2003 as a part of the Tulsa refinery district. Owner Ray Burgess had all the tools any refinery could need, but also farming and ranching implements and antique home goods.

Leroy Welborn pursued a philosophy similar to Swinney’s and Burgess’ ? offer services the big hardware outlets didn’t. Because of his background in all things electrical, he branched into lamp rewiring and antique lamp rebuilding. Initially, the labor expense of repairing faucets and other plumbing devices was given away as a loss leader, he said.

“This drew customers in to the store where they would then buy other hardware or electrical items,” he said. “Repairing takes a lot of man hours.”

In addition to rewiring and refurbishing antique lamps and fans, other major services listed on the Best website include “chain saw sharpening, blade sharpening, computer paint matching, re-keying locks, pipe cutting and threading, every size of nail (50 in all).” The store boasts 34,000 items in stock.

Greg Welborn said: “Another way the hardware business has changed for the worse is things are made cheaper in China for the throw-away society. They don’t make any money selling repair parts. They make the most selling whole units. Years ago, you could take things apart and buy the parts to fix them.

“When people walk in the door, they’ve got a problem and you’re there to help them fix it or at least to figure out a way to fix it. We still fix things.”

Best Electric Hardware

Address: 3647 S. Peoria Ave., Tulsa

Founded: 1977

Employees: 19

Phone: 918-743-3763

Email: [email protected]

Phil Mulkins 918-699-8888

[email protected]