The brothers' retirement led to an irresistible offer.
From the March, 2019 issue
Sometime before next fall, John Fingerle estimates, Ann Arbor's last independent lumber supplier will be gone for good.
In November, Fingerle Lumber announced it would be closing after eighty-seven years. A week later, the family-owned hardware and lumber store made known that its 6.5-acre lot between Madison and Hill was being sold to the University of Michigan.
Fingerle says the business was doing well. He and his brother Mark, third-generation owners, simply felt it was time to retire. "There wasn't one moment" of decision, says Fingerle. "I'm sixty years old, Mark is fifty-seven. I've worked here for forty-six years, I think Mark's worked here for forty-three or forty-four ...
"We like the business. We love what we do. We think dealing with all those engaged in construction of housing and other buildings is one of the most noble businesses that's out there. Our employees are wonderful. Our suppliers and our customers we view as friends."
The U-M paid $24 million for the land. The deed will officially transfer over in March, but they will lease the building from the university through the end of this year. "The timing is pretty good," says Fingerle, "because we had the university and other parties interested in the real estate, even though we'd made the decision to retire without having any deal in hand ...We were optimistic that a robust economy would mean good things for our people as far as their ability to find work elsewhere, and that's proven to be so." While their lease goes through January, he estimates the store will close sometime this spring or summer.
According to Fingerle, many employees have found work at other independent lumber stores in the area, including Mans Lumber & Millwork in Canton and Chelsea Lumber's Chelsea and Saline locations. Others have opted to retire after decades at the company.
"One memory that's repeated itself numerous times is having had the pleasure of watching people retire at the end of their career,"
says Fingerle. "Some that started here when they were in their twenties ... Many of those people started before I did. It was a pleasure to shake their hands and bid them farewell."
As for the land's future, "no specific use for the property has been determined," says U-M spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen. In a press release, she cited the area's "strategic location" near the U-M's indoor Sports Coliseum and other university properties along Madison and Packard. However, some kind of redevelopment is surely in the cards. Fingerle's metal sheds, as the release drily notes, are not "well suited for long-term university use."
Our February I Spy contest (p. 91) featured a picture of the Westside Barbecue, situated on the Fingerle property, with the clue "disappearing backdrop." Many readers wrote in with memories of Fingerle alongside their contest entries. "My dad (a woodworker) has been stocking up on their sale items daily!" wrote Rose Paretti. Dan Ezekiel remembered, as a twenty-something, "watching from a block away as a huge fire swept the piles of lumber at Fingerle." A 1989 Observer cover by Chris Raschka imagined the "drive-through" shed that replaced the burned building morphing into a medieval cathedral.
Westside Barbecue's month-to-month lease will transfer over to the U-M with the official sale in March. The
U-M's plans for the small building are as yet unknown.
Looking back, John Fingerle says he's grateful for the memories he has of the family business--founded in 1936 by his grandfather, Earle Fingerle--even the stressful ones. "My first memory may not be one of my favorites," he says, "but the very first day I started, one of the old guys was shaking some yellow, oil-based paint on the paint shaker and hadn't clamped the can down well enough ... It flew off the paint shaker [and] hit the wall. The lid popped off the can, and there was oil-based paint all over the wall and the floor, and Ted [McKillop, a manager at the time] said 'John, there's some rags, there's some paint thinner, please clean it up.' So that was kind of trial by fire." (Though luckily not the actual 1977 one).
What's next for Fingerle? "I don't see a second career," he says, "but I don't see myself leading a sedentary life either. I know I'll be active doing something, I just don't know what." Until then, he and Mark will be selling the store's inventory and wrapping up loose ends, like transferring the service of products they sold with lifetime warranties.
"We, to the bottom of our hearts, thank the do-it-yourselfers and contractors from Ann Arbor for the business that they favored us with for almost nine decades," he says. "It's been our pleasure to serve all of them."
Fingerle Lumber, 617 Fifth Ave. (734) 663-0581. Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Closed Sun. fingerlelumber.com
[Originally published in March, 2019.]
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