West St. Paul’s oldest continuously owned family business, Langula’s Hardware at 919 South Robert, is struggling.
“Customers have forgotten what we did and do for them,” said Gary Langula. “Their loyalty has gone to the big boxes. I can count nine big boxes that have moved into my neighborhood in the last five years.”
Gary’s grandfather, Emil Langula, founded the hardware business in 1912. He had been a blacksmith in Germany before immigrating to the U.S.A. One of the most important businesses to the early pioneers was the blacksmith. They would shoe horses, repair harnesses, forge sleigh runners and gardening tools.
West St. Paul was always a city of builders, craftsmen, and contractors. In the early 1900’s theses artisans were independent and sought their employment from individual families and local businesses. Many of the earliest of these were electricians, plumbers, roofers, excavators, blacktop layers, and developers.
Emil Langula had built his own store across from one he had been renting. He became frustrated when the roof of the rented building would not stop leaking. The owner wouldn’t make the repairs so Emil bought a lot across the street at 919 South Robert. He built the new store on the spot with a six-room apartment upstairs for the family and a blacksmith shop behind the store.
Emil Langula set the tone for the three generations of his family through making community contributions. He installed the first gasoline pump in the city right at the curb in front of the store. Today the store has the first kerosene pump. He also promoted events along South Robert including the famous annual Christmas tree, live turkey throws, beef barbecues and booyas. He obtained grant money to build Harmon Field, a recreation park. No minor contribution was the digging of a sanitary sewer line from his store to downtown St. Paul.
Ernie William Langula, father of Gary, took over the store in 1946 after having served in WWII as a sergeant of the 3rd army under General Patton. The store has been remodeled twice since then. Gary Langula took over the business in 1980 after having shared it with his father. In the earlier years it was the Germans, Italians, Irish, and Swedes who frequented his store. Today it is the Hispanic and African customer. Gary does not do a five-year business plan. He says, “It does not work. What works is the people who walk through the door. Business has been declining for everyone including the big boxes. Is it a recession? I don’t know.” Some of his repairs are lawnmowers, snow blowers, chain saws, trimmers, window screens besides the selling of hardware.
There is such a legacy of determination, enterprising imagination and self teaching with the Langula family. Gary has various licenses including small engine repair and ham operator. He learned the business on his own after his father suffered a stroke in 1970. He taught himself computers starting in 1985. He now is doing checking, insurance, medical and store supplies. Being asked, “Would it be possible to do your business without computers?” He said, “Anything is possible without anything.” This is the spirit and imagination that has kept the business moving along for almost 100 years.