Lee Builder Mart to close in June

May. 09, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

After nearly 60 years serving contractors and handymen, Lee Builder Mart is going out of business.

Gilbert Lett started the store in 1955 selling cabinets on Bragg Street. By 1963, he had moved into a 33,000-square-foot building at the company’s present location on Horner Boulevard, just south of U.S. 1. The business kept on expanding, eventually Gilbert’s son Tony Lett took over, and now Lee Builder Mart has 115,000 square feet of retail, office and warehouse space that will be for sale or lease by the end of June.

“We’ve always done the majority of our business in Lee County,” Lett said Thursday, the first day of the store’s going-out-of-business sale. “... And I hate to say it, because I was born and bred here, but the economy just hasn’t recovered.”

At the height of its success — and the height of the housing bubble — Lee Builder Mart had satellite stores in Pittsboro and Siler City and employed 75 people. Once the housing bubble popped and the economy tanked, Lett closed the Chatham County locations and downsized to a staff of 42.

Now, despite the federal government having declared the recession officially over, Lett is still struggling to stay afloat despite cutting hours and shrinking to a staff of 16.

“It’s been a long time coming,” the 60-year-old Lett said. “For the past two or three years, we’ve tried to make that decision [to close], but because of the employees and still wanting to sell it to keep the business going, we tried to hold off.”

But no one bought the company, so they decided to hold one last major sale before putting the building up as well. Everything is being sold, including the furniture, woodworking equipment, trucks and the retail merchandise, which ranges from doors to floors, paint, lumber and just about every kind of tool imaginable. The sale will last weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Lett owns and manages the store in concert with his sister, Janice Coleman, and her husband, Art. Coleman said the closure is bittersweet; she spent nearly her whole life at the store, starting when she turned 15 and got a job working the cash register. She got Art a job at the store when they were teenagers, and they’ve worked together there for nearly four decades while also navigating dating and marriage.

So while many of her fondest memories happened at Lee Builder Mart, she said, she’s at least glad that she and her husband will finally be able to take a much-needed vacation. But that still doesn’t dull the pain she feels.

“Turnout has been great today,” she said Thursday, when the sale led to a packed parking lot. “I just wish it had been this way for the past three years. But I’m not into sour grapes. Our issues have been the economy and cheap competition. ... We always prided ourselves on quality products.”

Lett also acknowledged that competition has played a role in the business’s slide, in addition to the economy. More than 80 percent of their sales were to contractors, he said, so when demand for homes dried up and others came in offering cheaper goods, the contractors went with the cheaper option.

He said he considered waiting a few more years to see if military realignments brought growth to Fort Bragg and southern Lee County, or if development in Chatham County brought growth to northern Lee County.

But he had played that game before and learned that nearby growth doesn’t always spill over county lines.

“I was on the [Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce] board about 30 years ago when Apex and Cary exploded,” Lett said. “And we thought Sanford would be next. Well, it all went to Holly Springs.”

Lett, the chamber’s 2013 Small Business Advocate of the Year, said he’s not ready to retire yet and is looking for a new project. In the meantime, he’ll have his hands full: He serves on the Central Carolina Community College foundation board, he’s a longtime member of Triangle South Workforce Development, the Sanford Rotary Club and First Baptist Church, and he has been involved with Habitat for Humanity ever since it started in Sanford.

Coleman and her husband also are active in church and civic work, and she said they were all raised to be involved in the community. She said she has no ill will toward the people of the community she loves for not being able to sustain the business, even if she does wish potential customers would focus more on quality products than on low prices.

“People say competition is good because it drives down prices,” Coleman said. “And I guess that’s good for the consumer — maybe.”