This is an article in our series on Detroit businesses that have been around for over 50 years. Read other entries here.
Ray Formosa grew up in Corktown. In high school, he starting working as a stock boy at Brooks Lumber & Hardware, the only place he's ever worked. Today he co-owns it.
But his life and time in and around the hardware store is just a blip in its long history—perhaps the longest among all Detroit businesses.
Since 1896, Brooks Lumber & Hardware has sat on the same piece of land in Corktown, witnessing in its time the building of the John Lodge and I-75 freeways, which flank its property to the north and the east, and the entire lifespan of the original Tiger Stadium, which sat just across Trumbull Street. It was founded and owned for generations by the Brooks family, with ownership eventually passing to a cohort of longtime employees, including Formosa.
"That we know of, we are the oldest retail business in the city at the same location," says Formosa, who began his tenure at Brooks in 1978.
Brooks is like a concentrated, eclectic Home Depot. The shop floor is a sprawling warren of aisles with thousands of items instrumental to building and maintenance, from changing a light bulb to historic rehabilitation.
With such a longstanding history in the city, Brooks has been party to the making and maintenance of many of Detroit's most iconic buildings.
"If you think about it, we've been involved in one aspect or another through the entire city," says Formosa. "It's something that I've always enjoyed, being a fixture of this community, this neighborhood, and this city. You get to meet many people—all good people—and they're not just a number. You develop relationships with them."
Ray Formosa, co-owner of Brooks Lumber
Formosa is not the only one who emphasizes the relationships as a major benefit of working at Brooks, a place where the average employee has been there for ten years or more. One such employee is James Glenn, a friendly fixture behind the front counter, often one of the first to greet new people and familiar faces as they come in the door.
"I was always a hardware salesman," says Glenn on how he came to be part of the team at Brooks. "I walked through the doors, and somehow the gentleman asked me, did I need employment? I was already working, and I said, 'Well, I'll give it a shot.' Been here ever since, really."
Since coming to the shop, he's become an expert in lumber, which is, not surprisingly, a specialty at Brooks Lumber & Hardware. A series of outbuildings that reach back two full city blocks to the east behind the main building house its lumber stock, the Brooks mill shop, and the workshop of their on-staff millwright, a furniture and cabinet maker named Gary Luna.
"He's very good with basically anything you want to do with lumber that needs customizing," says Formosa.
Brooks also makes custom laminate countertops in-house, and wood sash wooden windows, which hold a very particular type of cache for historical home buffs wishing to preserve the integrity of their houses in historic neighborhoods like Indian Village, Boston Edison, and Corktown itself.
James Glenn works at the front counter and lumber desk
Brooks represents the retention of not only an anachronistic and hands-on building tradition—fast-disappearing in our age where even skilled-trades are technology-assisted. They also maintain, in addition to more modern lines, products that specifically serve old homes, like galvanized rock-face siding or plaster-and-lathe supplies that are hard to come by in big box stores.
"This company has had a history of being through two World Wars, through the Depression, surviving the riots in '67, and able, with the ups and downs of the city, to still be here," says Formosa. "We know the demands of our public here, and we cater to them."
Indeed, Brooks is an old-fashioned establishment, particularly in its dedication to customer service.
"I've had people here come four generations deep," says Formosa. "Many of them [crossing paths] here, not planning it. And it's kind of funny to see that, but it's a good thing to see, that they keep traditional small businesses going."
The multi-generational nature of Brooks Lumber extends to the staff as well. Both junior and senior John Marroquin work at Brooks, the elder of which has been there 37 years, and is another co-owner.
"Things are changing now, where they used to be the same all the time," says Marroquin, Sr., citing the demolition and rebuilding of institutions like Tiger Stadium and the Detroit Cab Company. "It was mostly staying the same until probably the last two or three years. Now we're beginning to see a change in our surroundings, and homeowners and people moving in, fixing things up."
The whole team at Brooks, from Formosa and the Marroquins, Glenn at the counter, the jovial Rahman ("the Rock") and quiet Randall Gillette in the paint department, to gregarious Gregory out in the warehouse, seem proud to have a part to play in the constant work of Detroit's building community. A formidable task, as one might imagine, in a city whose notions of destruction and reconstruction are built right into our motto: "Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus
"—"We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes."
When it comes to rebuilding, hope only goes so far—for all the rest of the practicalities, there's Brooks.
Ace Brooks Lumber & Hardware is located at 2200 Trumbull Ave, Detroit, MI 48216.
All photos by the author.