CARTHAGE, Mo. — After 38 years in the hardware business in the shadow of the historic Jasper County Courthouse, Ray and Lana Mathis are calling it a career and selling the Carthage Hardware store.
Their plan is to close the store later this month and sell the building at 119 E. Third St. But their memories are vivid and will last a lifetime.
“I recently discovered, as we were looking through family photos, a picture of my grandmother when she was 5, her little sister when she was 3, and their mom when they came up from Diamond to the courthouse square in Carthage one day long ago,” Ray Mathis said. “And it’s a picture of them right out in front of the steps of the courthouse that I get to look out on every day. It’s a connection with history, family history and local history, and it’s just phenomenal. It’s overwhelming.”
It’s fitting that the couple is ending their retail career during the Christmas season — they got their start as business owners during the Christmas season of 1981.
Lana Mathis was working for the Carthage School District, and Ray Mathis was working in retail in Joplin. The two had met in college at Missouri Southern State University, and they married in 1972 after dating for a couple of years.
In 1981, the two took a big chance and bought the building at 121 E. Third St.
“We thought it would be a good investment,” Ray Mathis said. “Business was booming around the square, and we wanted to be part of it, at least as landlords.”
Ray Mathis said the couple acquired a load of Christmas merchandise and toys on consignment in the winter of 1981, and opened a shop in their new building.
“We never planned to be in business, but we had a wonderful response,” Ray Mathis said.
An old business
Carthage Hardware, at 119 E. Third St., was owned at the time by Malcom Wright and Lloyd Wright, a father-and-son team who also owned Carlson’s Hardware in Joplin and a hardware store in Springfield.
Soon enough, Mathis learned through the grapevine that Carthage Hardware was for sale and persuaded his wife to join him in the purchase.
“We paid a phenomenally high interest rate, but we paid it and made money, and it worked," he said.
According to historical records, Mathis said, there has always been a hardware store at that location on the Carthage square, even going back before the Civil War. In 1982, the square was home to a number of retail stores, the couple said — Ramsay's, Belk's, J.C. Penney and Sears, to name a few.
Walmart also had already moved into town, but it wasn’t the force it would soon become.
“Walmart hit Carthage about 1968 or 1969 down on Central,” Ray Mathis said. “We’ve been through three Walmart expansions.”
The couple had to stay on their toes to compete with Walmart.
“You had to be sensitive and look for things that Walmart — and later, the big-box stores — didn’t do or didn’t do well,” Ray Mathis said. “Consequently, our gift lines, our clocks, our service, the bridal registry. We went into the tuxedo rental business.”
Ray Mathis said loyal Carthage residents are the foundation for their success, but booming tourist traffic from Route 66 and Precious Moments have helped keep the cash register ringing.
“We soon learned and developed the sense that tourists are an enormous part of the retail business on this town square,” he said. “It’s not necessarily all from Route 66, but we meet lots of folks from France and Germany who love to do Route 66. They’re usually on bikes and in leather, and we have to ship what they buy to them. We get lots of day-trippers from Branson. ... Tourists are to be counted as one of the biggest assets to a good and successful business on the square in Carthage.”
The couple said they’ll cherish the relationships they’ve built with customers they now call friends.
They’ll also cherish the memories of raising their daughter, Christin, in the store. The daughter now has four children of her own, and the Mathises said they plan to spend more time in their retirement watching them grow up.
“We couldn’t go to ballgames and run this store,” Lana Mathis said. "We couldn’t do things with our grandkids; we want to be able to do the things we want to do.”