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Iconic Cambridge hardware store holds its last sale

125-year-old store was facing tough rivals and a soft economy

“It has been difficult to maintain the business,” says third-generation owner David Masse, 73, of FX Masse Hardware Co.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

“It has been difficult to maintain the business,” says third-generation owner David Masse, 73, of FX Masse Hardware Co.

CAMBRIDGE — In 1888, Benjamin Harrison was elected president, the Washington Monument opened, and Francis Xavier Masse opened his hardware store at the corner of Sherman and Walden streets in Cambridge.

Through the decades, FX Masse Hardware Co. was known for its personal service and traditional, no-nonsense atmosphere, the go-to place to have keys made or pick up an emergency snow shovel.

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Now, third-generation owner David Masse says it’s time to go. Competition from big-box stores and the Internet, combined with a difficult economic climate, have persuaded the 73-year-old that it’s time to take a long-delayed retirement.

Masse’s will close its doors this fall, after 125 years. With it will go a bit more of old Cambridge.

“It has been difficult to maintain the business,” Masse said Tuesday as customers searched for bargains among the profusion of racks, shelves, and hanging tools on the first day of a going-out-of-business sale. “We were still able to make a living, but there was not a lot of profit on it.”

By mid-afternoon, customers had lined up seven or eight deep at the well-worn counter, where Masse, his son Andrew, and their staff raced to keep up with demand.

Kerry Campbell, 69, stood among the hammers, chisels, and paint brushes for a moment to recall her long relationship with the store, which began with a recommendation from a Harvard student in 1968.

“It was my first Cambridge apartment, and I came here for things like keys and spray paint — the same things I’m here for today,” she said.

Campbell said she was sad to see the shop close.

“The only other store that’s even vaguely like this — and it’s not really like this — is Tags,” she said, referring to the much larger Porter Square hardware and housewares retailer. “These people have been here 20, 30, 40 years.”

Robert Harlow, 68, said he’d been a customer since 1974.

“I just wandered in as a stranger, but I kept coming back and it started to feel more like home,” he said.

Harlow’s favorite memory involves a chance run-in with a famous Cantabrigian.

“I was standing in line . . . buying doorknobs, and I looked over next to me and there was Julia Child,” he said.

“I said, ‘Miss Child,’ and she looked over. I said, ‘I’m buying doorknobs,’ and she said, ‘Strangely, so am I,’ ” Harlow said, imitating at Child’s distinctive, burbling voice.

He told the famous chef he was making stuffed peppers for dinner. “She said, ‘Ooh, I love stuffed peppers. That’s a comfort food,’ ” Harlow said.

While customers reminisced Tuesday, David Masse sounded more pragmatic.

“I’m looking forward to retiring,” he said. “I’ve been coming in every day for 60 years.”

He and his wife of 31 years, Patricia, plan to devote themselves to travel — she has her eye on a trip to Italy, for starters. “Her bags are packed,” he said.

Masse is the grandson of FX Masse, who left his family farm in Quebec at 12 and took a job to help support his 15 siblings. Four years later, he borrowed $20 and took a train to Cambridge, getting off at Sherman Street and finding work that day at a bakery down the street.

He founded the store at 26, buying a building diagonally across the intersection from the spot where he built its current location in 1900. Upon his death in 1953, he passed the store on to his son Frederick, who passed it on to his son David when he died in 1992.

Over the decades, David Masse watched the area’s transformation.

“When I started working here 60 years ago, across the street where St. Peters Field and Danehy Park are now, that used to be the Cambridge dump,” he said.

Before that, Masse said, it was the New England Brick Co. — until the clay ran out. Near present-day Alewife Station was an industrial park with steel companies that bought goods at his store.

He lost business when those companies moved away, he said, but the store survived on sales to contractors building and renovating homes.

The rise of the big-box hardware store cut into that business, and the economic downturn of 2008 nearly decimated it, Masse said.

In previous recessions, he said, many homeowners decided against hiring contractors but proceeded with improvements, doing the work themselves and buying from local stores. But in the recent recession, most called off their renovations.

“We were still able to make a living, but there was not a lot of profit on it,” he said.

When, after a decade-long search, Masse found a buyer for his parking lot across Sherman Street, he knew it was time to go. The new owner will build rental housing, he said, while Masse converts the hardware store into two apartments, to go with the four he already owns upstairs.

A third-generation businessman, Masse good-naturedly shrugged off the nostalgia some customers felt over the store’s closing.

“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said with a smile. “They can’t.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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