Church Supply - Tonini Church Supply Co.
he first opened his store in downtown Louisville in 1886, Ferdinand Tonini could
hardly have dreamed that Tonini Church Supply would one day become a
leader in its field, serving a worldwide market. But it happened. The business
was a Louisville-area operation until Ferdinandís grandson, Elmore, got back
from World War II. During his travels as a bomber pilot, Elmore had discovered a
new market Ė the military, with its countless chaplains and chapels. Soon
Toniniís was publishing a catalog aimed at U.S. military installations all over
the world. Now, 29,000 catalogs go out each year to customers of all sorts, and
eighty percent of Toniniís business is outside of Kentucky.
Over a typical morning last
fall, there were orders from Uganda, Iceland and American Samoa, among other
places. Elmore Tonini says his business may be the nationís number one church
supply house; itís definitely in the top five. The "liturgical" denominations Ė
Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Anglican and Lutheran Ė provide the bulk of the
business. Candles are the biggest seller. The key to success is old-fashioned
service: "Bend over backwards and bite your tongue twenty times to satisfy a
customer," says Tonini.
It hasnít always been smooth
sailing. The toughest patch came in the early 1960s when the Catholic liturgy
was revamped: Latin out, English in. Stuck with 45,000 mass books in Latin and
plummeting sales of rosaries, Tonini remembers "lying in bed and thinking, what
are we going to do next?" Many companies went out of business, but Tonini found
salvation by expanding some product lines, such as flags, and adding some new
ones, such as sacramental wine. Tonini has six children working in the business,
but heís not ready to quit. "I guess you could classify me as a workaholic. I
enjoy working, and Iím too old to play golf or run around."
Toniniís stayed in its original downtown location until 1992, when it moved
into this 25,000 square-foot facility in the suburbs. ďIt already seems small,Ē
says Tonini. His 32 employees ship out up to 500 0rders a day.
Reprint from Kentucky Humanities
Magazine Ė a publication of the Kentucky Historical Society
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