NEWS- Another casualty: Ron Martin appliance store goes under

It's farewell to Ron Martin.

Late last year, homebuilding legend R.D. Wade announced he was closing the construction side of his 40-year-old business in the wake of the housing market slump. Now there's another high-profile victim of the market downturn: Ron Martin Appliance.

In a letter sent to the store's creditors (including the Hook, which ran advertisements for the business), Ron Martin's new owner, David McKenney, explains the decision. "The home building business has all but disappeared," he writes, "and consumer spending has dropped dramatically, thus creating a significant decline in our cash flow that has not allowed us to get out from under our significant operating losses."

McKenney did not return calls to his West End Richmond home, but the letter suggests the business failure has been personally devastating as well: he has also filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. His Richmond-based attorney, David Spiro, did not return the Hook's call. (Full disclosure: McKenney's bankruptcy puts the Hook in the hole more than $6,000.)

For a business that once sold televisions and eventually seemed the local leader in appliances, the decision to close marks the final chapter in a tumultuous six years. After the 2002 death of Ron Martin, who founded the store in 1973, his son Logan Martin took the reins. A hoped-for sale to Ferguson Enterprises fell through in 2004, forcing Martin to trade his ground-level space at the corner of Seminole Trail and Woodbrook Road for room on the second floor of the building Martin owned. The business continued to struggle, and Martin– who said at the time he longed for a less stressful career– leapt at the chance to sell.

McKenney, a longtime rep for Frigidaire, was enthusiastic when he announced the purchase of the business in late 2006, and at least one Ron Martin employee was excited about his new boss.

"They plan on rebuilding it by being honest, trustworthy, and part of the community," said Fred Childress at the time. Childress could not be reached for comment this week.

Those plans, apparently, were no match for what some fear serves as evidence that Charlottesville isn't immune from what may be the beginning of a recession, and Ron Martin isn't the only local appliance business feeling the sting.

"The appliance business is low margin and high cost to serve," says John Maddux, general manager of Ferguson. Maddux says Ferguson is somewhat protected by the other products it sells– everything from lighting to plumbing supplies– but he says the tanking housing market presents a challenging economic climate.

"I've never seen a downturn quite this severe," says Maddux, citing 5.4 million homes currently for sale in the U.S. and looming foreclosures. He predicts the number of houses for sale will grow to 6.8 million. "How many years it takes to absorb that, I don't know," he says, "but it's later rather than sooner."

Maddux admits Ferguson has cut its workforce at each of its six locations– two in Charlottesville, two in Harrisonburg, one each in Culpeper and Fishersville– and is seeking ways to keep costs down.

"It affects morale because if you don't handle it right," he says, "people walk around wondering if they're next."

Adding to the woes of a tanking market is the 2003 arrival of Best Buy, which joined Sears and Lowe's as big-box appliance peddlers. Although in 2003 Maddux and Logan Martin both predicted that the service and care provided by local businesses would trump the low prices at such behemoths, the market today is far different than it was five years ago.

Such large stores offer "extremely attractive financing," says Maddux, "which makes it even more difficult to compete."

One local appliance business, however, says it's still going strong, but not thanks to sales. Davis Appliance on High Street has been selling and servicing appliances for 40 years, according to manager Betty Carlson, and while sales may have dipped slightly, the service side of the business is making up the difference.

"I don't foresee any problems," says Carlson, calling the personal service Davis offers "vastly different from Sears and other big boxes."

Once upon a time, Ron Martin Appliance could have said the same thing. But, as the store's closing proves, times have changed. 

 "It's sad to see," says former owner Logan Martin. "It reflects the competitive environment."