GILBY, N.D. -- Whether customers want candy to satisfy a sweet tooth, a sump pump to fight a flood, or a greeting card, customers can find it -- along with a cup of coffee and some conversation -- at Carlson’s Hardware in Gilby.

“If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,” Richard Carlson said.

Though he said it with a laugh, there’s truth to his statement. He and his wife, Mary, have owned the hardware store for nearly a quarter century and know their customers’ needs.

“April 19, 1995, was our first day,” Richard said.

In a town with a population of about 230 in the midst of farm country, that means stocking the store with a variety of items, from tools such as screwdrivers, wrenches and socket sets, to air compressor nozzles to a variety of tapes, including duct, masking and electrical.

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With no other store within 14 miles in any direction, people depend on the hardware store, his customers say.

“Richard’s got everything,” said Marvin Larson, who farms near Gilby. “It’s very handy, especially for plumbing supplies.

One of the things the hardware store’s customers appreciate is that the Carlsons don’t put away items that are out of season.

“You never know what people will want,” Richard said. “Like Christmas lights -- we sell them in May, June to people decorating for proms and weddings.

“I’ve sold 20-inch box fans in the winter. They use them for thawing out combines. They get the air moving in the combine and thaw it out when they put them in the shop at night.”

Besides typical hardware inventory, the store also carries toys, games and what Mary calls “emergency gifts,” such as housewares, small appliances and cookware that people can stop in and buy when they’ve just heard about, or forgotten, to get a gift for a wedding shower or birthday.

The hardware store’s shelves aren't the only place packed with products. There’s also a pegboard on all four sides of its chimney, filled with items several inches deep hanging on hooks. The chimney in the middle of the store also serves as a landmark for customers.

“We always direct people from the chimney to what they want to find,” Richard said.

When they’ve found what they came to buy, customers know they can get back to work quickly because often they just hold it up on the way out the door. Mary writes up a receipt after they’ve left, sending them a bill once a month.

“Half of our business is on account,” Richard said.

Besides stocking their store with myriad products, the Carlsons accommodate their customers by serving coffee. Most mornings the four chairs just inside the hardware store door are occupied.

The hardware store, in the absence of a cafe, has become the town’s meeting place, said Janet Hulst.

“They gather here for coffee. They shoot the breeze and find out what’s going on for the day,” she said.

The regulars' ceramic cups hang on the wall behind the coffee pot.

“Everybody’s got their own cup,” Richard said.

With Mary, behind the counter, and Richard settled into a chair each morning talking to customers, Carlson’s Hardware and its owners have become a Gilby institution.

“I don’t know what we would do without it,” Larson said.