Main Street Merchants

Featured Article, Hometown Heroes, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on November 21, 2012
Exterior views of Moravian Book Store.
Brian Freed

When he was a child, Don Barriball accompanied his father and grandfather to Chagrin Hardware to buy plumbing supplies. As a teenager, Barriball purchased his fishing and hunting licenses at the store. And when he was ready to build his own home in the 1950s, the store supplied a circular saw and bags of cement.

Now 85, Barriball uses any excuse to drop by the hardware store that has been a cherished fixture since 1857 on Main Street in Chagrin Falls, Ohio (pop. 4,113).

“It hasn’t changed in appearance, and that’s what’s so great about it,” Barriball says about the four-story brick building with oak counters, storage shelves and drawers laden with pipe fittings, bamboo fishing poles, cast-iron skillets, bottles of maple syrup, lamp parts and snow shovels.

Also unchanged is exceptional customer service offered by the Shutts siblings—Steve, Jack and Susan—in the tradition of the neighborly assistance provided by their late parents, who bought the store from an uncle in 1965.

“Growing up, I don’t remember a holiday that wasn’t interrupted by someone needing something,” says Steve, 60. “One Thanksgiving, a guy came over literally with a broken kitchen sink. Dad got up from his meal and took him to the store and fixed him up with parts.”

Steve continues to open the hardware store after-hours for customers who need a bag of topsoil or sliders to move furniture.

About a third of Chagrin Hardware’s customers run a tab, settling their bills monthly. Although receipts are written by hand as they were 155 years ago, the business is wired to the Internet, and merchandise requested by customers can be ordered and available within the week.

The store’s inventory always has reflected the townspeople’s needs. In the early 1900s, Chagrin Hardware sold coal, butter churns and Model T Touring Cars, which arrived by railcar. One drawer at the store contains 1950s-era notes from parents giving permission for their children to buy ammunition for their BB guns.

Every Memorial Day, customers bring in photographs of family members in the military for a patriotic display in the hardware store’s front window.

“We’re close to our customers,” Steve says. “They’ve backed us for generations.”

Mom & pop shops
Beloved and rare retail landmarks like Chagrin Hardware have survived across the United States because the owners are rooted in their communities and have adapted to change, says retail historian Robert Spector, 64, author of “The Mom & Pop Store: True Stories from the Heart of America.”

“Every customer is precious. No one knows that better than a mom-and-pop store owner,” says Spector, of Seattle. “It’s not strictly an exchange of money for goods and services; the owners connect to the community in a meaningful way. They’re part of the community, whether they’re sponsoring a baseball team or using their truck for a charity drive.”

While clinging to their businesses’ old-fashioned charm and character, the owners also change with the times.

“We were here before there was an America, but we’ve come to terms with technology,” says Dana DeVito, 55, manager of the Moravian Book Shop, established in 1745 in Bethlehem, Pa. (pop. 74,982). “We can do everything Amazon can do.”

Founded by members of the Protestant denomination to provide a “well organized commerce in books,” the nation’s oldest bookstore began adding novels and games in the late 1800s. Today, the store sprawls throughout four buildings, including its oldest 1871 building, and sells books, gifts and deli sandwiches. Along with a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction for adults and children, store clerks can order any book in print and often locate rare out-of-print books.

The bookstore caters to customers, holding weekly children’s story times, book signings for visiting authors and book club meetings. Each October, the shop offers guided walking tours of historical haunts in downtown Bethlehem.

Clerk John Roman, 69, says the store is known for its Christmas ornaments, especially Moravian stars, which were created during the early 1800s to teach geometry to schoolchildren.

Tried and true
The novelty of shopping America’s oldest Main Street merchants also lures customers to the 1832 Colburn Shoe Store in Belfast, Maine (pop. 6,668), and the 1842 Hildreth’s Home Goods store in Southampton, N.Y. (pop. 3,109).

“People come in and say, ‘This reminds me of when I was a kid,’” says owner Brian Horne, 56, about the shoe store housed in its present building since 1905. “Some people think this is a museum.”

Though Colburn’s no longer carries high-button shoes, Horne climbs the shop’s original rolling ladders on cast-iron wheels to fetch shoeboxes from tall shelves and retrieves hosiery and handbags from antique cabinet drawers. And though the store doesn’t stock the latest fashion footwear, Horne still measures his customers’ feet.

“I don’t know all my customers’ names, but I know their shoe size,” he says, adding that the store sells tried-and-true brands such as Red Wing boots and Keds sneakers.

“They only sell substantial shoes—nothing outlandish,” says longtime customer Josephine Grady, 96. “It’s a wonderful store, something to be proud of.”

In Southampton, N.Y., owner Henry Hildreth says Hildreth’s Home Goods, which bills itself as America’s oldest family-owned department store, is a regular shopping spot for generations of residents and a must-see for tourists.

“We’re a destination,” says Hildreth, 56, whose great-great-grandfather Lewis Hildreth opened the store in 1842. “It’s entertaining to come here because you can see a little bit of the past.”

Antique cash registers and ledgers, plows and other farm implements, and even a wooden outhouse seat are displayed throughout the store. In its early days, the store’s inventory included whale oil, harpoons, salt, cheese, spices and sewing notions, which arrived by ship at nearby Sag Harbor, then were hauled by horse and wagon to the store. The store still sells sewing supplies, but today specializes in indoor and outdoor furniture, home furnishings and custom window treatments.

“We have a big range of pricing with sofas from $600 to $6,000,” Hildreth says. “My name is on the store, and I take it to heart to do the best job to make customers happy and satisfied.”