READFIELD — Customers stop in frequently these days to say goodbye to Kents Hill Lumber Company.

Owner Stephen Monsulick is closing the lumber and hardware business Nov. 3 after 36 years of operation, a result of the poor economy and its effect on the business.

He will continue to run Kents Hill Lumber Self-Storage at the same site.

“A lot of people stop by and tell me how sorry they were that we were closing,” Monsulick said. “That’s been a very difficult thing. That’s one of the hardest things to handle from my perspective. We have known many of these people for decades. It’s one of the more emotional things.”

In its heyday, Kents Hill Lumber had up to 20 employees at a time and did three to four times the business it’s doing today with six employees, Monsulick said. His wife, Beverly, is among the employees.

In 1989, Monsulick opened a second location, in New Gloucester, which was run by his sister, Bonnie Whitten. Monsulick closed that store last year, again because of the economy.

“The real issue is the decline in the housing starts,” Monsulick said.

Rita Ferris, president of the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association, which represents independent, largely family-owned building supply yards, said the company closing follows a trend among the smaller independent dealers.

“This is the first quarter in a very long time that housing starts have increased,” Ferris said, adding that some companies are choosing to consolidate. “In this economy, consolidation is necessary to maintain buying power and people power because everything counts.”

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, new housing construction in the northeast region, which includes Maine, was 6 percent higher in September than in August. However, that was only half the national rate.

From September 2011 to September 2012, new housing construction in the northeast increased by almost 24 percent in figures that had yet to be seasonally adjusted. So while the market may be improving, it seems to be doing so slower in the northeast.

“Over the years we’ve gone through many recessions, ups and downs,” Monsulick said. “This one was just so protracted, and I honestly don’t a see a huge improvement coming ahead. I decided we had enough.”

Ferris said the overall number of lumber yards is shrinking. Statistics from the lumber association’s members over the past three fiscal years, which end in September, show:

* In 2010, 10 lumber companies went out of business; one was acquired;

* 2011: five went out of business; five were acquired;

* 2012: four went out of business; one was acquired.

“So I see things settling out,” she said. “This consolidation is a positive thing that’s helping people to maintain their market share.” In Maine, 30 retail yards and 54 branch yards belong to the organization.

“It’s hard to lose a great company like Kents Hill after all these years,” she said. “We’re sad to see them go and hope they stay in the industry.”

Now 62, Monsulick said he’s not retiring. He’s taking time off for shoulder surgery and then will start “looking for employment and not necessarily in the lumber business.”

The lumber company abuts Kents Hill School, which Monsulick described as a great customer over the years.

Monsulick said his father produced hardwood pallets on site before it became the lumber company. The pallet production stopped in 1984. There was a sawmill on site in the early years.

In addition to lumber, the business offered paint and hardware.

The lumber company has been a big supporter of town projects over the years. A year ago, for instance, Monsulick brought his boom truck to do the heavy lifting as volunteers rebuilt a footbridge across Mill Stream.

“It made that job so much easier,” said Larry Dunn, chairman of the Readfield selectmen, who was manager of the project. Dunn said Monsulick removed the heavy old bridge, and hauled it away for disposal.

“We may not have been able to do it without his help,” Dunn said.

For an idea of the close ties between residents, Dunn’s wife, Sharon, works at the lumber yard, and the families are friends.

“The Monsulicks have a long history of volunteering their time and whenever possible material and monetary donations, especially through the school system,” Dunn said. “They’re going to be very sorely missed. The community is going to miss them greatly, especially those of us who have frequented that place through the years.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631
[email protected]