Standing in the middle of what was, until a few weeks ago, the Eagleton Hardware store on East Broadway, new owner Bryan Schreiber can feel the building’s ghosts.
They’re not the supernatural specters of horror films, although on a Wednesday morning with the power still off, the cavernous building has an eerie feel in the early December gloom.
The metal ceiling tiles of what was the retail space reflect little ambient light, and the back room, where former owner Mike Miller stored a haphazard collection of tools, machines, supplies and odds and ends that were sold via online auction last month, is a haunted house scene straight out of central casting: metal trusses holding up the original wooden roof are wrapped in spider webs, and the bare walls of carefully cut boards are bereft of sheetrock or paneling.
In reality, however, it’s a time capsule of an era when craftsmanship trumped expediency, and with the combined warehouse space behind a set of roll-up garage doors and two additional storage rooms, Schreiber knew he had found the right location for his new Hello Garage franchise as soon as he walked through the door.
“I looked all around Knoxville; my realtor sent me a list of about eight places, and this was one of them, and I eventually came down here and checked it out one day,” Schreiber told The Daily Times. “When I walked in, the first thing I thought was, ‘This place is amazing!’ I immediately saw the potential — the facade was beautiful, and when I started walking around and saw the architectural structure, you could tell it allowed for so much potential and opportunity. It’s beautiful, and you can just tell it’s going to be an amazing place.”
Long-time local residents may remember that Eagleton Hardware was owned for years by Bud DeFoe, whose father and grandfather first opened it around 1950. The store was turned over to Charles and Roberta Walker shortly after opening, however, and the couple ran it as Eagleton Hardware for 37 years.
After buying it back from the Walkers, the name changed to DeFoe Hardware, but eight years later, DeFoe sold it as-is to Mike Miller, who grew up in rural Blount County and attended Hubbard and Bassel schools before graduating from Alcoa. After joining the Marines in 1970, he was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition that eventually led to permanent impairment. That, Miller told The Daily Times, played the biggest role in his decision to close the store last year.
“It was too hard to see and get around, and plus the pandemic slowed everything down, too,” he said. “It was really frustrating, because there was a lot of stuff I had to quit doing. I had to have a flashlight to really do anything, and people were having to give me rides. I’ve been pretty independent for most of my life, and I hated to keep depending on people.”
Miller bought the store in 1996, changed the name back to Eagleton Hardware and for the next 25 ½ years, it served as a reminder to local residents of simpler times. When it became apparent that he could no longer continue to serve his longtime regulars — many of whom can find him enjoying breakfast at Midland Restaurant around 6 a.m. every day — he turned to Maryville’s DeLozier Realty and Auction, one of the oldest auction houses in Blount County, to liquidate the store’s assets. Owner Jerry DeLozier, his son, Austin, and co-owner Kevin Ross inventoried the store’s contents, bundled items together and sold everything online over a several-week period to bidders around the country.
“There was a lot of interest in this auction, and we had several bidders,” Jerry DeLozier said. “Mike had things and offered services you wouldn’t necessarily find at some of the big box stores, like the old-fashioned key-cutting machine you operated by hand. There was an old Toledo scale; old antique display cabinets; a mid-century modern seed cabinet that was very unique; a big (Ridgid 300) pipe threading machine that allowed you to thread pipes to unique specifications. It took a lot of technique to operate equipment like that.”
With the assets in the hands of DeLozier, Miller turned to Frank Weiskopf of Maryville’s Realty Executives Associates to sell the property itself. When he first closed, Miller hoped to find a buyer who would acquire the business and keep it open. A potential Oregon investor even considered purchasing the store and keeping Miller on as the proprietor for a few months, but that deal fell through. At the same time, Schreiber was ready to start the next phase of his own business career.
A native of Brentwood, Schreiber moved to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee, graduating with an accounting degree in 2005. Shortly afterward, he applied to the Knoxville Police Department in pursuit of a lifelong dream of law enforcement service, and while he enjoyed the work, his restless mind was constantly churning, he said.
“I immediately started thinking of ways to improve the police car, and that’s when I created a microphone hang-up system,” Schreiber said, describing the concept behind his start-up, Magnetic Mic. “I created and launched it, not knowing it would take five to seven years to get off the ground, but when I brought in my cousin and business partner to help me run it, by 2015 we started having enough sales and market appeal to do it full time.”
That same year, he left the KPD, using his experience as an officer and his contacts in the field to leverage interest in Magnetic Mic. The concept, he added, is simple.
“Instead of fumbling to hang up the microphone onto an old metal clip, we made it incredibly easy using magnetic attraction,” he said. “You just have to get it close and let it go — that was how we marketed it, actually. When officers would come to our trade show booth, you would immediately see a smile on their faces, and all of them would say, ‘I struggle with this all the time. This is a great solution!’”
They patented their invention, and as it continued to grow, so too did Schreiber’s family. He and his wife have a 4 ½ year old and a 10 month old, and last year, ready to do something different, he sold his stake in Magnetic Mic to his partner and began looking for his next venture. Although he was initially reluctant to buy into a franchise, the owners of Hello Garage, based in Omaha, Nebraska, won him over.
“They specialize in garage floor coatings, epoxy coatings, cabinets, storage, organization, lighting — everything to ‘elevate the garage to the front door,’” he said. “They also created a family type of culture that I fell in love with, and as I dug further into the franchise, it felt like they were checking all of my boxes.”
His broker, David Stanley of Knoxville-based Avison Young, suggested finding a location that would not only be big enough to accommodate the needs of his Hello Garage franchise but might also provide space Schreiber could lease to generate rental income as well. The Eagleton Hardware building fit the bill, and the sale’s closing took place earlier this month. Schreiber plans to use the garage space, complete with a concrete ramp and loading dock, and build out a few offices, but the rest of the building will be available to interested parties … and down the road, the craftsmanship of its bones have Schreiber’s brain thinking of a number of possibilities.
“I want to open the whole thing up, to just have it as a shell and just sit here and breathe for a minute and go, ‘What can we do with this space?’” he said. “All the plans are up in the air, but I can see a coffeeshop, with maybe a boutique, Southern-style, French-style, Joanna Gaines-inspired boutique, and at the same time, we don’t want to let go of the past.
“I would love to incorporate the hardware store theme into whatever we do, because I think that would be a super-cool tribute to Mike. I bought this space for the potential as much as a business need, and I just appreciate the small-town feel of it.”
As for Miller, he’s enjoying time with his grandson and his Midland ritual. It’s a strange feeling, not to follow the daily routine he has for a quarter-century of his life: unlocking the front doors, making his way down the display counter and lighting the old kerosene heater around which his regulars would sometimes gather.
Those customers, many of whom became his friends, are what Miller will miss the most, he said.
“Over the years, I got to know a lot of them that came in there all the time, and when I’ve run into them like over at Midland, they say they’re going to miss it,” he said. “It really was something to be a part of — almost 70 years as a hardware store.”
Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years and continues to freelance about entertainment-related topics, local performances and East Tennessee artists. Contact him at email@example.com.