Customers can plainly see Burns Lumber from the famous Route 66 in Tucumcari, N.M.
The Road to Tucumcari Leads to Burns Lumber
by Clare Adrian
Tucumcari, N.M.—Small towns along Historic Route 66, like Tucumcari, N.M., need more business owners like James Burns, who can see past the boarded up motels and cafes to a time when the town will thrive. Burns bought Currell Lumber Co. in 2003, on a hunch, and isn’t sorry.
“I liked the odds,” said Burns. “It felt like there was an opportunity there just because it’s almost the only game in town.” There is a Lowe's to be reckoned with, but as Burns pointed out “customers can pull right up to my front door and if they’re in a hurry, can be in and out, almost like a convenience store.”
The renamed Burns Lumber store faces directly onto what the State of New Mexico, in concert with a national Route 66 revival movement, refers to as the National Scenic Byway. “We’re the only yard on 66, so we’re very visible and absolutely the
James Burns is owner of the operation, as well as two other locations.
easiest one to get to with lots of parking.”
Burns has made some changes since his purchase that add to being noticed. The characteristic red-colored columns supporting the Do-It-Best affiliation stands out alongside the faded facades up and down the route. Burns remodeled the inside of the store and increased shelf space to be able to carry more hardware.
Tucumcari—with a population approaching 6,000—is a ranching community, another reason for Burns’ purchase. The location dovetails with his other two stores in Clovis and Texline, which he purchased from his dad in 1988. To meet the fencing needs of the ranchers, Burns stocks steel t-posts, barbed wire and cattle panels.
Lumber is the highest priority commodity Burns carries and since taking ownership of the business, he has stepped up the quantity he buys to be more competitive, searching out more suppliers to do more price comparison shopping. Currently, his sources for the 175,000 board feet per year of mostly SPF species, along with some yellow pine, are BlueLinx in Albuquerque, N.M., and Sage Brush in Amarillo, Texas.
Another change that occurred before Burns took ownership, is to have gained control of the full city block his business inhabits. Warren Frost bought the lumber business from Currell but didn’t change the name. During his thre
Services that the company offers include custom cutting of lumber, pipes and glass.
e year tenure as owner before Burns, he obtained a permit from the city to fence in the alley, prior to which, the front half of the property was double-fenced off from the back half, the alley in between having free access. The two separate gates had to be locked each night and during the day, more manpower was required to monitor the multiple exits. Now entry and exit is through one portal. Customers can pull through to the lumber bins of any one of the four large outdoor sheds to load their trucks, another advantage Burns perceives his company has over Lowe’s, where customers have to add the step of loading a cart inside the store and then getting the purchase to the truck.
As an alternative, Burns’ customers have the delivery option. “The heavier the product you buy the less miles you’ll put on your vehicle to go get it. When we get into commodity items and building materials, you don’t necessarily want to haul 2x4s down the highway in a pickup,” commented Burns, who figures his market covers a 50-mile radius of the sparsely populated Quay County area. He mostly does business with remodelers, though some commercial accounts funnel in by way of the school system and city. He sees very little new construction in the area because of the bypass, but slowly, it is occurring.
Yard manager, Chris Ortiz, and store manager, Robert Garcia, stock shelves at Burns Lumber.
The town’s economy had been based on the tourists business. It was also a crew change point for the railroad. When I-40 was completed in 1976, hotels and motels didn’t automatically spring up along the interstate. “They didn’t move fast enough, but now they are slowly getting that done,” said Burns.
Originally from the northern Texas Panhandle, Burns was born and raised in the lumber business. His great-grandfather, John Burns, moved to the New Mexico area in 1888. “He had a general store where he sold everything, lumber, feed, groceries, dry goods, shoes, hats—just a really interesting business back in the early part of the century.”
The family tradition continued when James’ father, Jack Burns, opened the Texline location, which stocked mainly lumber. James worked there full-time for five years after completing college. When it became apparent his father would not be opening a second store, he went to work for regional wholesaler Galbraith Steel, then for the Do-It-Best co-op. He thoroughly enjoyed his sales job, but when starting a family, he wanted to be home more. He quit selling on the road, and opened a hardware store in Clovis, already having taken over his father’s Texline location. Now his trek i
Robert Benavidez serves as general manager of the location.
s just between the three locations.
None of Burns’ siblings, four sisters and one brother, were interested in retail. His high-school-age son and daughter seem to be going in other directions, too, though his daughter does some light bookkeeping, only because, said Burns, “I expect her to.”
Being a small operation, Burns acknowledged, has its advantages such as being able to react to the market quickly. Presently, he has no outside sales person and does little advertising. His three fulltime employees are well-seated in the community, know many people and what’s going on. Manager Robert Benavidez has worked in the store through all three ownerships, encompassing a 25 year time period. Not much advertising is needed in a small community, so seasonal newspaper ads seem to hail enough attention. Word of mouth does the job, and, said Burns, “the marquee with reader boards was money well spent.”
Growth is slow and steady, and Burns noted that just the changes that were made when he bought the store are beginning to pay off. He plans for 15% gains for the Tucumcari location this year which is ambitious consideri
Behind Burns Lumber store is an L-shaped storage area.
ng the economy in the town.
Burns will continue to offer a broad selection of lumber and building materials and increase the hardware department for the farm and range market he services. He doesn’t ever intend to go back to the way his grandfather ran the business, but if there’s an opportunity, he’ll stock an unrelated item. So along with a lumber purchase, customers often can’t resist the “No Man’s Land” beef jerky displayed on the counter.
Besides the reawakening of the tourist trade out on the interstate, Burns can see towns like Tucumcari attracting the retiring baby boomer population. And his timing may have been impeccable, unbeknownst to him at the time. In 2002, several gas companies started drilling gas wells in the area. With a new gas separation facility and pipeline from the fields to the separator, several wind farms in the planning stages and wind generated electricity a possibility in the area, a building surge may be just around the bend
The Tucumcari location offers plenty of parking, as well as the convenience of being on a major thoroughfare.