By Raiza Giorgi
Long before Gene Madsen was born, Solvang was an important place for his family. His parents met at Atterdag College (now Atterdag Village of Solvang), where his mother worked in the kitchen and his father was attending school.
“They ended up moving back to my father’s family’s dairy farm in Milltown, Wisconsin, and I lived there until I was 10. I’ve always been tinkering on something or another. I love working with my hands. I guess that’s why I’ve enjoyed my job here at the hardware store for so long,” Madsen said with his typically big smile.
Madsen is celebrating 40 years with Ace Hardware this month. His presence at Valley Hardware is hard to miss, as he is well over 6 feet tall and always eager to approach customers with offers of help. Even during a newspaper interview, he stopped to help several people find a tool or other product.
“I love helping people with their projects and finding what they need. Sometimes it’s even telling them not to spend more on this part, when the other part is cheaper and does just as good of a job. I want to make sure my customers feel that we’re trustworthy,” Madsen said.
His boss and friend, Ken Verkler, has also worked at the hardware store for 45 years, well before he bought it in 1987.
“I actually took Gene to lunch one day and asked him how he liked his job at Alamo Mart, the old furniture shop,” Verkler said.
Madsen chimed in that the store he worked at for a few years had just been taken over and he was wanting to change jobs.
“I was engaged and getting married at the time and wanted to make sure I could provide for my future wife and family,” he said.
He and his wife, Harriet, have two children, Kris and Kirsten, and now have two grandchildren.
Madsen was originally hired to run the Ace Hardware in Buellton that was open for about 10 years from 1978. Since it closed, he has worked at the Solvang store.
Madsen recalls many experiences at Ace Hardware, including a time part of the roof was torn off for remodeling — and it rained that week.
“I remember dumping buckets of rain water and vacuuming and mopping. That was eventful, but at least we had access to tools,” he laughed.
More recently, a woman drove her vehicle through the front of the building after hitting the gas instead of the brake.
Keeping up with changing trends and competition from the Internet have been challenges for the hardware store, which has sold everything from saddles and horse tack to vacuums and tractors.
“The one thing we have done is always try to change with the times. Sure, it’s been a bit hard with Amazon and YouTube ‘how to’ videos, but we have the personal touch and the experience no one else has. At one time I knew everyone who came in that door by name. I still know a lot of people and like to think I help them out from time to time,” Madsen said.
Aside from his work at the hardware store, Madsen loves woodworking and building things. He can also be seen singing in the Santa Ynez Valley Master Chorale and the Valley Troubadours. And he recently took up golf.
As the store nears its 65th anniversary in 2018, Madsen said, he isn’t going anywhere just yet.
“Sure, I might scale back a few hours and work a few days a week in a couple years, but this is where I love to be,” he said.
Valley Hardware is at 1665 Mission Drive in Solvang. For more information, log onto www.syvhardware.com.