Fortunately for Bill Graham, the flames of the November fire that ripped through 7609 Raytown Road didn’t make their way to the 6,500 square feet of space he leases on the west side of the building. A little smoke damage is all Graham Plumbing Supply sustained.
But it took several months to get his electricity back on after the blaze, and the whole normal has Graham, 71, thinking a little harder about retirement lately.
“I’m looking for a successor,” Graham said the other day, leaning back in a low chair behind the shop’s long wood counter.
Graham is Kansas City’s go-to guy for antique toilets, pedestal sinks and the thousands of obscure (in some cases obsolete) repair parts that help send water into and out of those fixtures. He’s who plumbers might call when they need a particular brass valve for a 100-year-old sink. He’s who homeowners might call when they’re remodeling a bathroom and would like a toilet with a bit of vintage character.
“I’d say I’m probably the only game in town with the parts, inventory and knowledge that I have,” Graham said. “Least, I don’t know of any others.”
Two men have owned Graham Plumbing Supply in the nine decades it has been in business. Graham’s father, LA, founded the company in 1932 and ran it for the next 50 years. Graham bought it from LA and has been at the helm ever since.
Graham Plumbing Supply has always sold repair parts, but in its earlier days it specialized in general plumbing repair, including service work on boilers and water heaters. Back then it was based in midtown. From 1940 to 1980, LA owned 20,000 square feet of ground at 3122 Main St.
“Then the city gave Wendy’s hamburgers right of the domain,” Graham said. “We ended up at 3833 Broadway. That was in ’80. I bought my father out in ’82. Then in 1999, here comes Walgreens.”
The pharmacy chain wanted a half-block of property at the corner of 39th Street and Broadway Boulevard. Graham eventually sold out. (Like Wendy’s on Main, Walgreens still occupies the location today.) He packed up his antique toilet bowls and tank lids and tubular brass and old galvanized fittings and brought them all to Raytown Road.
It was slow-going in Raytown at first. In midtown, there’d been steady business from real estate management companies needing hard-to-find parts for servicing all the old homes in that area. Raytown wasn’t quite so vintage in that regard. “Plus, they tore down our old building right away and nobody knew how to find us,” Graham said.
Then, around 2001, Graham pulled off a clever move. He purchased a 1-800 number associated with Westburne, a large national distributor of plumbing supplies that was getting out of the parts business.
“They had salesmen all over the country selling off of this catalog they put out called Star Plumbing and Maintenance Parts,” Graham said. “I asked to buy the number, and they said sure. There wasn’t any copyright on it.”
Soon, customers were calling Graham Plumbing Supplies thinking it was the line for Star.
“We’d explain to them that Star was out of business but we likely had what they were looking for — faucet parts or closet bolts or anything,” Graham said. “Which we did. But we also, around that time, started buying more in bulk. So that was a whole new ballgame for us.”
Graham said he still has several hundred customers across the country who call and place orders based on that old catalog: large plumbing companies, general contractors, municipal governments. If he doesn’t have the part, he’ll order it.
These days, Graham is more animated about the antique side of his business. He likes to buy the stuff, fix the stuff, sell the stuff.
“Come back this way,” Graham said. He walked around a corner to a cluttered back closet and slid a small box off a shelf. Inside was a shiny faucet.
“That’s a Chicago Faucet, which is one of the finest faucets ever made,” he said. “I had it re-chromed, put new parts in it — state-of-the-art quarter-turn ceramic disc cartridges. This would go in an antique pedestal sink, is where I’m gonna put it.”
Plumbers sometimes come to Graham with discarded pre-war toilets they can’t bear to see hauled off to the dump. He once bought 83 Kohler toilets from a hotel in St. Louis, all dated 1930, that came with their original hardware. He still has two left: a purple one and a yellow one.
Graham’s showroom floor, if you can call it that, is a sea of dozens of white and pastel-colored sinks and toilet bowls that rest on the carpet with no price tags attached. Some are for sale, some are waiting to be picked up, some are projects in progress. Most are vintage in a way. They are arranged in a long rectangle that clears a walking path from the door to the counter.
A customer arrived, an elderly man in a blue-and-yellow Navy veteran’s hat. He walked gingerly toward the counter and Graham met him on the other side. Graham had sold the gentleman a brass fill valve a week before for his 1955 American Standard toilet. Now he wanted a brass ballcock for it.
Graham tried to talk him out of it.
“If it was my toilet, I’d put new guts in it,” Graham said. “I just finished a toilet this morning that’s about your vintage, and I put a Fluidmaster flush valve in there and a Fluidmaster fill valve. You can’t beat those Fluidmasters. They do away with your rod and your float ball. They’re easy to put in and replace, and it’s a $12 item.”
The old man wasn’t ready to make that decision. He said he’d think about it and come back. He left.
Graham returned to the subject of his retirement. He and his wife would like to spend more time with their three kids and a grandson, and he wouldn’t mind a little extra time to golf and fish. But first he needs somebody to take his one-man business off his hands.
“I think people see all this, and maybe it scares them off,” Graham said, gesturing vaguely at the mountain of inventory that surrounded him. “It’s true that few people have the expertise I do. But hell, I’m willing to train. And I’m not asking a pile of money for it.” He reckons $100,000 ought to seal the deal.
“I don’t know when my number’s going to come up,” Graham continued. “Something happened to me, there’ll probably just be an auction of all this stuff, and that’s it.”
He shook his head and seemed to ponder that moment. A large industrial fan blasted out a steady drone. A country music station played softly on an old radio behind the counter. A customer walked in. Graham stood up.
“Howdy,” he said.