"Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man," sing the commercials, and notes John Madden, for Ace Hardware.

Ray Johnson, your "helpful hardware man" in Rio Rancho for the last nine years, is closing his store on Ace Way, just north of Target, soon.

One reason is the economy, which led to a downturn in hardware sales in late 2007.

The main reason, however, is Rio Ranchoans going elsewhere for hardware needs. With Home Depot and Lowes opening their big-box stores in Rio Rancho, not to mention two Walmarts in the area that also have hardware sections, little Ace Hardware has become the forgotten store.

Ace isn't the first business to "go under" in recent months; it won't be the last.

Johnson, 61, has done his part to support the city and its endeavors, from being a Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce member since he opened his store in February 2002 to serving on the planning and zoning commission, and seemingly always available to help various clubs and organizations. The wall in his office is lined with photos of baseball teams and plaques from grateful beneficiaries of his donations.

"The people in Rio Rancho have to support their local stores," says Johnson. "It just hasn't happened."

A native of Chicago who spent 32 years in the trucking industry, he chose to move to Rio Rancho. He'd started his trucking career as a mechanic and rose through his three decades to management positions, but, as he says, "I wanted to be among the people, deal with the people."

The money was good, he said, but not the quality of life. Though born and raised in the Midwest, he said, "I wanted to go ‘home,' and the West was home."

Even before he moved here, he said, he was visiting to help out at balloon fiestas and playing a role in the Mayor's Ball in Rio Rancho.

"I just loved it here," he said. His brother, Gary, moved here first and is a Realtor. He occasionally would visit his brother and knew, "I loved the West."

Johnson and his late wife Ramona bought a house in River's Edge 2. "I thought, ‘I'm gonna have a footprint in Rio Rancho; that was in 1990." He was working out of Atlanta, traveling with his trucking job to Pennsylvania and Florida, and throughout Georgia, until April of 1999.

Johnson later bought a lot in River's Edge 3 and had a home built there, where he and his current wife, Alda, who works with him at Ace Hardware, reside.

In the meantime, he was retired; Ramona would come home, he said, see the housework had already been done. "She said, ‘You need a job."

When he decided he wanted to run an Ace Hardware, and the parent company did its best to try to get him to open an Ace in Albuquerque, he refused, waiting until the company agreed to let him run a store in the City of Vision.

He did his research at the time, learning the city with its population in the early 2000s should be able to support three hardware stores. He chatted with the owner of the True Value store on Southern Blvd. and received his blessing, Johnson said, and each man content to "have" a section of the growing city.

Although he couldn't afford the building he initially wanted for his hardware store, ground was broken for his store in November of 2001 and, surprising those who scoffed at his ambitious plans, the cash register rang for the first time in February 2002.

He wanted his mom-and-pop hardware store to "be an old-fashioned store, without the wooden floor," he said. "(When) anyone walks in here, they've got a problem: a leaky toilet, they need to paint a room. I love people and helping all I can.

"My plan was to open two other stores - at NM 528 and US 550, and on Unser. (But then) Home Depot and Lowes came in," he said. "I'm not in the best location."

He's sad to say goodbye, and he believes his long-time customers will miss him and the service he provided.

"It was a hell of a ride," he said, also enjoying working with the chamber, where he originated the "Shop Rio" campaign - and promoting the community. Johnson hopes to improve his golf game once he's retired - Ace could be open another 30, 60 or even 90 days as he sells his inventory.

Then, he says, he'll hopefully be able to lease the building, be a landlord, and improve his golf game.

Debbi Moore, president and CEO of the chamber, echoed Johnson's sentiments about Rio Ranchoans supporting their local businesses.

"I think, first of all, Ray's Ace Hardware has had a very important role in our community. He was on our board, an outstanding citizen, and we will miss the business."

But, she added, "We have to be more cognizant when we don't shop locally - it affects our neighbors and their livelihood. We need to make sure that, as much as possible, we spend our dollars locally."

Moore has a term for people who continue to shop "down the hill." It's called "patternitis."

"We need to change our shopping patterns," she said. "(Ace) is sort of a name brand. We need to realize that us taking those gross receipts dollars are vital."