YAKIMA, Wash. — Knowing your customers and what they want is key to staying in business, Jim Wilbanks will tell you.

Housed in a red cinder block building on Fruitvale Boulevard is his small store, C&H Hardware. Here, customers can search through bins of nuts and bolts to find the exact size they need. Plus, they can buy one rather than an entire box.

And Wilbanks, 63, who knows many of his customers on a first-name basis, doesn’t hesitate to help them find exactly what they are looking for.

“A lot of these guys come in day after day and you get to know them,” he said. “A lot of ’em will come in and say: ‘Hey, you know that thing I bought a couple of months ago? I need a couple more of them.’ ”

Wilbanks’ store is just one of several small hardware stores in the Yakima Valley that continue to survive by offering customers a personal touch and specialty items despite the presence of big-box stores such as Lowes and The Home Depot.

Knowing customers on a first-name basis is what keeps Ideal Lumber in Toppenish going strong after more than 50 years, said owner Carrie Story, who acquired the store from her father.

“We have this great advantage — our customers are our friends,” she said. “Even though we’ve gotten bigger over the years, we still try to maintain that mom-and-pop feel to our store.”

Wilbanks’ store has that same mom-and-pop atmosphere. To walk inside is like stepping into the past. The former feed store has a rough concrete floor. A machine that carves keys sits at the front near a large counter where customers are helped. On one side of the store stands rows of shelves containing items ranging from electrical fuses to gate latches and hinges and spools of various size rope and link chains. Spoke wheels with rubber tires for carts or wheelbarrows hang from the ceiling.

On the other side of the store are more shelves filled with paint, painting supplies and tools ranging from pipe wrenches to large-jaw pliers. At the rear are rows of bins of nuts and bolts, plumbing supplies, space heaters and even a pipe vise to cut and thread pipe.

“We do that all the time,” he said of cutting pipe for customers.

Against the rear wall is another machine that presses fittings onto the ends of rubber hoses to create hydraulic hoses that are often used on forklifts and tractors.

He said his customers are a mix of contractors, fruit warehouse operators, farmers and do-it-yourself homeowners — “the whole gamut.”

Being able to carry items that larger stores don’t because they don’t sell enough of them is vital. Wilbanks pointed to a small hinge often used on orchard ladders. “A lot of guys who want to repair a few ladders will come in here because they know we will have 10 or more of them,” he said, pointing to a row of hinges hanging on a shelf.

Inventory at his store is taken manually. Large stores are all computerized. “It’s all done up here,” he said, pointing to his head.

The store has operated more or less the same way for more than a half-century. Accountant Vince Cresci and his wife, Edith Holman, opened the store in 1959, Wilbanks said. Their last initials make up the store’s name: C&H.

Wilbanks worked for the store in the mid-1970s, then left to work elsewhere. He returned in 1990 and became a part owner in 1995. He’s owned it outright the past six years.

His store is part of the True Value hardware franchise even though it’s individually owned and operated. But a lot of small hardware stores, like Ideal Lumber in Toppenish, are franchisees, which allows them to buy merchandise at a better price from a large warehouse or direct from manufacturers.

Ideal Lumber is an Ace Hardware franchisee. In Yakima, three other small, independently owned stores also belong to the Ace franchise.

Behind Wilbanks’ store are two buildings he uses as warehouses, where additional stock and supplies out of season, such as ice melt, space heaters and fans, are kept year-round.

“If someone wants a bag of melt in June for some odd reason, we’d have it,” he said. “Or a box fan in the middle of winter, we’d have it.”

Convenience is another huge factor in the viability of Wilbanks’ store. Customers can quickly pop in, get what they need, and be gone in a matter of minutes.

“I’ve always said, we’re not a pretty store — we’re functional,” he said. “Where a guy who climbs out from under a Hyster (forklift) all greasy can come get what he needs and be back to work in 10 minutes.”

Jose’s Pro Hardware in Wapato also counts on convenience as a customer lure. Jose Mendez opened about 10 years ago because the rural Lower Valley town lacked a hardware store.

“It was a need in Wapato because people were going from Wapato to Toppenish,” he said. “And I had my kids by then and I wanted to teach them to work and the best way to teach them to work is to open a business.”

Like Wilbanks, he’s found that customer service is important. Also, he’s able to save Wapato residents a drive to Toppenish or Yakima.

“Sometimes it’s not that easy to compete with the big-box stores, but being a convenient hardware store, that’s what we are,” he said. “We’re still serving the community.”

Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or pferolito@yakimaherald.com.