YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Despite more than 40 years on the job, Herb Soss, owner of Ace Lumber Co. in Youngstown, still can’t predict what his day is going to look like.
A few weeks back, a woman came in shortly after the store opened and asked him if he could build her a casket for her cat.
“So, I told my buddy that comes in, ‘I need this made up. It’s a box. Just make it up,’” Soss says. “But we wondered, ‘Where is the cat now?’”
That unpredictability is one of the reasons Soss still enjoys working at the business that his parents started 82 years ago.
Bernie and Elaine Soss opened Ace Lumber Co. on Poland Ave. in Youngstown in 1940.
“This was nothing. This was just a vacant lot with a garage on it back then,” Soss says.
A barber by trade, Bernie began taking accounting classes, then started working at Harris Wrecking Co. in Cleveland as an estimator after he graduated.
“He would estimate the buildings as to how much lumber would come out of it,” then present it to Harris Wrecking so they could decide if the salvage would be worth the purchase price.
A few years after opening Ace Lumber, Bernie was drafted into the service during World War II, and enlisted Elaine’s uncle, Joe, to assist with the business until he returned.
“I guess they did a pretty good job because it’s lasted for 82 years so far,” Soss says, adding that a big driver of business after the war was garage construction.
“After work, Mom and Dad would go out and sell garage packages,” Soss says. “There were no attached garages at that point. You didn’t have the overhead doors that you have today.”
Business was so good, Youngstown was “polluted with lumber yards,” many, if not all of which, Soss can still recall.
“On Meridian Road was U.S. Plywood, which eventually became Champion International. That became Georgia Pacific, and then it became Blue Links,” Soss says.
Other businesses included Alpine Lumber, which was also located on Poland Avenue, Acorn Lumber on Williamson Avenue, as well as Bernard Casey, Bernard Daniels and Sharp Lumber.
Today, Ace Lumber is the only remaining family-owned lumberyard in the city of Youngstown.
“They had nobody to take over. That’s eventually going to happen here,” Soss says.
Filling the void are the big-box hardware stores, though Soss says what’s been lost is the expertise that comes from decades of experience in the business.
He also says that big box stores don’t meet all the customers’ needs because they can’t accommodate special requests, such as a cat casket.
“They can’t get the millwork done that we do here,” Soss says. “We’re also making fancy stall doors for a lady who has horses.”
Soss has been a fixture at Ace Lumber since he was 6 years old.
He went to Kent State University to study business and marketing in the late 1960s, working at Ace during the summers.
While attending classes, he also entered into an apprenticeship for cabinetmaking through the carpenters union in Girard. There, he met several craftsmen who would help him learn the trade.
During the 1970s, Soss says Ace employed a lot of skilled European craftsmen, all of whom, like the businesses, he can recall by name.
Morris Vinerman, who came to Ace from Youngstown Cabinet, “had been through the Holocaust and had the tattoos on his arm,” Soss recalls.
Almost unbelievably, another Ace employee at the time was a former SS agent in the German army.
“He and Morris got along,” Soss says. “We had a mutual respect for everybody. We understood what was going on.”
At the height of its business, Ace employed 30, a mix of nationalities and religions that Soss calls the “United Nations. And I learned so much from them.”
Work performed by Ace Lumber was and is all around the Valley, and indeed the nation, if you know where to look for it. When Pittsburgh-based American Eagle Outfitters began to expand, it was Ace Lumber it called on to build the fixtures for its stores.
“We would ship them all over the United States,” including stores in Boston, New York and Minnesota.
Ace Lumber also built the nurses stands inside the former Northside Hospital and the current St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, as well as many of the teller counters in many local banks.
“Then it was called Metropolitan Bank,” Soss says of one of their clients. “We did the one in Liberty, which is now First Federal, not too far from the plaza.”
They also built the cupola at the Copeland Oaks Retirement Community in Sebring.
“That was in the 1960s, and I remember there was a steel structure that came in and we were to build all of the wood around that,” Soss says.
Today, Ace employs three, including Soss, and the industry is beginning to settle down after a tumultuous few years.
The price of lumber began to rise shortly after the onset of the pandemic, peaking at $1,670.50 per thousand board feet, according to the Nasdaq. Since then it has fallen to around $425 per thousand board feet, levels not seen since 2018.
“Treated lumber has dropped probably 80% from where it was during the beginning of the pandemic,” Soss says.
While the cost has come down,
Soss says certain items, such as plywood and adhesives, are still hard to locate.
To overcome the supply-chain challenges, Soss again relies on his expertise and the large network of friends he’s built over the years.
Recently, a friend of his was able to locate some adhesives for Soss, who then returned the favor when the friend needed 400 sheets of plywood.
“I told him, ‘No problem. I’ll get them and I’ll store them here for you,’”Soss says. “That’s the way it works. You work with your friends.”
Soss says at this time he doesn’t have a succession plan for Ace, and the business will likely close when he retires.
While he doesn’t lament the prospect, he does wonder what will happen when he and some of his colleagues do decide to hang it up.
“We have a certain expertise. The product knowledge that you gain over 50, 60 years,” he says. “It’s invaluable to those out in the field because you can’t get it at the big-box stores.”
As for when that might be?
“I don’t know. You can put a big question mark at the end.”
Pictured at top: Herb Soss is the owner of Ace Lumber Co., the only remaining family-owned lumberyard in the city of Youngstown.