Upon setting foot inside Steve’s Ace Home & Garden in Dubuque, one certainly will find much of what’s to be expected: Tools for inside and out, patio furniture and decor, grills, firepits, birdfeeders, flowers and assorted plants, and other home improvement essentials.
But it’s the unexpected that sets the store apart, according to Sara Carpenter. That includes specialty gifts with a hint of quirk and even a pair of stores within the store — a flower shop and a children’s boutique.
“One thing I like to do is think a little more outside the box,” she said. “I like to tell people that we’re more than just a hardware store. I try to look for stuff that’s on trend, but that’s not already being offered anywhere else in the community. Why re-invent the wheel?”
Carpenter, 41, serves as the president of Steve’s Ace. She and husband Jason purchased the business from Carpenter’s parents, Steve and Judy Selchert.
Steve assumed leadership of the business located at 1670 John F. Kennedy Road after walking in and noticing that something seemed a tad “off.”
“The shelves were empty, and there was hardly any inventory,” Carpenter said. “He called Ace Hardware’s corporate office and asked what was going on with his favorite store.”
Steve, a former mechanic, later learned the store was for sale, and in 1988, made the purchase with wife Judy, a former hairstylist.
“They didn’t know much about running a retail store,” Carpenter said. “But they figured it out together and made it work.”
Carpenter was practically born into the business, she said, doing her homework at the store after school and even crashing on the office sofa.
“I was always with my parents,” she said.
As Carpenter got older, she began helping out at the store, cleaning, running the cash register and watering plants.
“I still do my fair share of plant-watering,” she said, with a laugh.
A passion for gardening and horticulture born, Carpenter — a graduate of Dubuque Hempstead High School — went on to study at Kirkwood Community College, eventually landing her “dream job” at a large garden center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
However, the family business soon lured her back with an offer she couldn’t turn down.
“My dad called with the idea for a home and garden center at a new location,” Carpenter said. “He was older and didn’t necessarily want the stress of it all. I would be helping to open this new store. Cedar Rapids had been very good to me, so it was a difficult decision.”
However, she decided to sell her Cedar Rapids home and return to Dubuque in 2003, just as construction began at what is now Steve’s Ace Home & Garden Center at 3350 John F. Kennedy Road.
Carpenter also returned to school, completing her degree in communications and advertising at Clarke University in 2010.
Steve and Judy retired in 2014, with Carpenter and husband Jason — who serves as co-owner and vice president — officially purchasing the business in 2019.
In addition to the Dubuque home and garden center, the business also includes what Carpenter calls a “hidden gem” in Steve’s Ace Hardware at 200 S. Locust St.
She also has since opened Steve’s Ace Home & Garden in Peosta, Iowa.
“I think a lot of people assume that the business was just given to me,” Carpenter said. “But we made the investment. And we’ve worked really hard to keep these stores going, to expand them and to keep them unique.”
Whether shoppers are looking to spruce up their indoor or outdoor spaces, they also can find everything from humorous oven mits to clever socks, soaps and lotions, clothing and accessories, purses and more.
Pre-made or custom floral arrangements can be acquired at the Floral Shoppe. And parents can peruse Sprout: A Children’s Boutique for items geared toward infants through toddlers, as well as toys and more. Both are located within the Dubuque and Peosta locations.
“Ace has a reputation throughout all of its stores for being the first to carry certain brands,” Carpenter said. “I try to visit other Ace stores and bring a different vibe, strategically focusing on carrying the best-quality items you can’t already buy everywhere else. We have continued to evolve and see long-term success with that mentality. And I think we’ve helped our customers to feel confident about trying new things as well as we help them create their spaces.”
Additionally, the home and garden center hosts a variety of workshops, from how to design planters to creative crafts.
It also supports community initiatives, such as local charities.
With two active and athletic children, ages 11 and 12, life outside Steve’s Ace keeps Carpenter busy as well.
While she admitted she’s somewhat of a rarity as a woman at the helm of an Ace organization, Carpenter also credited the business for creating space and support for women in leadership positions.
“I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty,” Carpenter said. “I’m very proud of what we’re doing here, and I absolutely love it.”
Megan Gloss writes for the Telegraph Herald.