When Americans need lumber, most automatically head to the big box stores. And while Home Depot and Lowe's have reported sharp increases in sales, independent lumber retailers continue to leave the scene.
The recent demise of Rennekamp Lumber after 58 years in the West End leaves Paul Lumber in Lawrenceville and Allegheny Millworks on the South Side as the last two standing in the city. The Houston-Starr Co. is a block from the city in Wilkinsburg and about 10 independents sell lumber outside the city in Allegheny County.
Jim Starr, president of Houston-Starr, said the loss of independent retailers "has been stunning. I've been in the business 33 years and there have to have been" dozens that went under since the 1980s.
Rennekamp's inventory of everything from dumpsters, forklifts and trucks to shelving, wood, doorknobs and office equipment will be auctioned off at 9 a.m. Saturday at its Woodville Avenue site. The property itself will be sold separately.
"We're the last of a dying breed," said Dave Meyers, co-president of Paul Lumber. "A lot of people don't think there's anything but the chains. When [the Rennekamps] started in the business, there were lumberyards everywhere."
In the 1955 Polk's Directory of Pittsburgh, there were 34 retail and 40 wholesale listings of lumber dealers, according to Maryann Magra, a reference desk volunteer at the Heinz History Center.
Bill Rennekamp Jr., the company's manager, said the chain stores can sell more cheaply, but that many of his family's customers stayed loyal "because they could rely on our knowledge and service. They could come here and get help and advice immediately and we would help them load up."
The increased cost of building supplies has been a drag on the housing recovery. As builders scramble to find ways to lower their costs, they are more inclined to buy from big chain suppliers who buy in bulk and can pass the discounts on to their customers.
But competition wasn't the only issue, said Bill Rennekamp Sr., the company's president.
"We had so many people who didn't show up for work," he said. He had an 80-year-old counterman and an elderly worker in the lumberyard, "men who worked rings around some of these younger guys. We've been hearing that people want jobs, but our experience was that younger people didn't want to work."
"In the last two years, we have had a revolving door of people and tons of interviews," said Bill Rennekamp Jr.
The Rennekamps, who live on and own a working farm in Eighty Four, said their longtime customers reacted with alarm when they announced their decision to close. The most loyal said, "Where will we go?" said Adeline Rennekamp, Bill Sr.'s wife. "There are people who we know will miss us." The signs became clear two years ago, she said. "We made money until then. We still had third-generation customers."
Most of the clientele were small contractors, Bill Rennekamp Sr. said. "They would come in with a helper and didn't want to wait around. We could get them going, even with a big order, in 15 minutes."
Besides lumber, the Rennekamps sold "all the general material you need to build a house," he said. They also sold sand, salt, gravel and limestone. In the 1970s and '80s, they sold whole-house packages.
Bill Rennekamp Sr.'s grandfather started a concrete block business on the South Side in 1929 and established the lumber business in the West End in 1955. Rennekamp Supply on the South Side closed in 2007, after which people could buy block at the lumber company.
Today, there are fewer places to buy block than there used to be, too, said Bill Rennekamp Sr., who followed his grandfather and father in the business and whose 33-year-old namesake has worked for the company since he was a boy.
"I heard it all my life: 'You will have a job. You know what your job will be,' " Bill Rennekamp Jr. said.
While the company's closure signals his father's retirement, his own aspirations are moving in the direction of something stable: "I wasn't seeing this work as going back up anytime," Bill Rennekamp Jr. said. "I'm thinking about going into massage therapy."
For more information about the auction, visit www.auctionzip.com/Listings/1836282.html.