Retail is a tough business. Big box and online competitors have changed the landscape drastically.

But Fondren’s Montgomery Ace Hardware is standing strong with nearly 75 years under their tool belt.

Founded as a buying group by three hardware entrepreneurs in Chicago in 1924, ACE Stores first landed in Fondren a couple of decades later — in 1946 on State Street — somewhere near Mitchell Avenue.

Founder Bill Montgomery moved the store to its present location in 1952 and ran the business for a couple of decades. Then came Harold Dunnaway for about the same amount of time, until 1996.

That’s when Sherrell Thornton, a traveling hardware rep took the reigns.

“Harold and I were friends,” Thornton said. “I was tired of traveling and wanted to come back home and Harold was ready to retire.”

Thornton bought the ACE store in Petal, Miss. in 2004, moved it, then rebuilt it after a tornado blew it away in 2013.

Now in his 23rd year of ownership, here in Fondren, Thornton said ready-to-sell inventory and customer service differentiate him from others in the business.

“It’s a must,” he said of his operational cornerstones. “Number one is customer service. You can buy a flashlight most anywhere in town, but hopefully, they come to us because hopefully we treat them well and serve them well.” He added, “many of our customers, we call them by first name. That’s paying attention.”

It is also what draws a 60/40 consumer to contractor mix through the door.

Thornton said women are over 50 percent of the business. “I think they just know we will help them. We’ll stop just short of going home and doing the work.”

With nearly 9,000 square feet of hardware and tools packed under one roof, Montgomery Ace still makes room for a full line of paints and tucked away in the back, a housewares section.

As the neighborhood around them changes (Fondren Fitness opens next door this spring), look for an upgrade for Ace, too — in inventory and “more of a major upgrade” in general in each department — in 2019.

A rumor last fall claimed Montgomery Ace was leaving. Not true, Thornton protested.

“You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but, as we speak, I have no plans to leave,” Thornton said. “Hopefully, even when I’m gone, Montgomery will still be here.”

Montgomery Ace Hardware closed in late 2020. Shortly after, Thornton passed away.