Her husband, known to friends and customers as R.O., took pride in being the best key maker in Jackson County.
But R.O. Vance was much more than that. A self-taught mechanic, he sold and fixed appliances all over the county for 50 years, maintained summer homes for their owners and — until last week — ran the last surviving independent hardware store in Sylva.
Sitting in their small office in back of the Main Street store last week, the Vances reminisced about the last half-century. “We came here as two young people, and we’re going out as two senior citizens,” Willetta Vance said.
Back in the 1960s, R.O.’s dad was the manager of Farmers Federal Insurance in Sylva. His brother worked in the office too, and introduced R.O. to Willetta, who got a job there after finishing high school. They were married at 18 and 20.
The business has been good to them. “We were able to put three children through college — two daughters and a son,” Willetta said.
At one time, R.O. pointed out, there were six independent hardware stores in town. “We’re the last hometown hardware store,” he said.
Did competition from the national chains hurt their business? “Not really,” said R.O., “because we had things — personal service — that they didn’t have. We wanted to know our customers as individuals. And our customers have been real loyal to us over the years. They’ve stuck with us.”
In fact, if a key replacement was too difficult, Walmart and Lowe’s would send a customer to R.O. “If it was a broken key, he could fix it,” Willetta said.
But six months ago, R.O. had to give up doing the service work. “I’ve had some pulmonary problems,” he said. “I couldn’t carry the equipment and tools any more.” They made the tough decision to give up their lease, leaving downtown Sylva without one of its anchor businesses.
He speaks with pride about his maintenance work. “I always winterized the houses for the people from Florida and elsewhere,” he said. “Then I’d open them in the spring. I did 30 houses each year.”
The store itself specialized in galvanized ware — tubs and buckets — and appliance parts, pressure cookers and canners, Hotpoint appliances and Zenith televisions and stereos.
“We started thinking about closing in September,” R.O. said. “Our health was starting to fail, and we’d had the business up for sale for about a year.”
Now the shelves are nearly bare, the front windows covered in giant pink signs advertising their final sale.
Asked for a favorite memory, R.O. tells how the radio announcer, Uncle Jimmy Childress, used to sing the store’s jungle on WRGC, Sylva’s local radio station. When R.O. would show up at a house to repair an appliance, “The kids would sing the jingle,” he said.
Willetta added: “Uncle Jimmy used to say that R.O. could fix anything but a broken heart.”