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Goods and Services

Hardwhere?

Are City Homeowners Screwed When It Comes to Buying Screws? Not Necessarily

Michelle Gienow

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 9/13/2000

OK, so I needed a trash can. A new trash can. When I bought my tiny Abell rowhouse last summer, my neighbors neglected to tell me that, unless you paint your address on the flanks of your trash can in foot-high letters, it quickly gets stolen. My naked and anonymous can was snatched from the alley. By now, my lovely, steel-blue Rubbermaid is probably wearing somebody else's address. I hope they're treating her well.

I'd bought the trash can at Home Depot, where my folks had given me a gift certificate as a housewarming gift. Armed with a free pass through the teeming, towering aisles of home-care gewgaws, I loaded up on things the owner of an 87-year-old house needs: extension cords, tools, paint, a trash can.

But that was then. Now I had to spend real loot for a trash can. Now I realized that the Parkville Home Depot (the nearest branch) is nearly an 18-mile round-trip trek away on stoplight-riddled city streets. It's beyond the Beltway--out in the county, hon--and there is simply no quick way to get there. While suburbanites are used to jumping in the car for all of life's necessities (you know, videos, Chinese carry-out, six-packs, trash cans), I moved into the city to avoid spending quality time with my Chrysler. I hate driving.

Back when I was a lowly renter, I couldn't have cared less how far away Home Depot was. If the toilet leaked, a window cracked, or an outlet started to smoke, it was my landlord's job to fix the problem. Now I lament that the big home-repair emporia are all out in the boonies. And I'm not alone. All my neighbors bitch about there being no quick and easy place to pick up toilet-tank floats and claw hammers. Abell old-timers tell me how there used to be two hardware stores in Waverly, just blocks from our neighborhood. Both went belly up years ago, a fate that's befallen many neighborhood hardware stores. In 1979 (the year, incidentally, that the Home Depot chain debuted in Atlanta), the Baltimore Yellow Pages boasted more than 150 listings under "Hardware, Retail." Now the phone book has barely 50 such entries.

There's an old African saying that goes, "When elephants fight, the grass suffers." If you'll indulge me in a rather clunky analogy, I like to think of home-center biggies Hechinger's, Home Depot, and Lowe's as, respectively, Elephant 1, Elephant 2, and Elephant 3. Last year Elephant 2 fought Elephant 1 into insolvency. (The Maryland-based Hechinger chain went bankrupt, largely due to fierce competition from Home Depot.) Now Elephant 3 has moved into the field, ready to go tusk-to-tusk. Amidst all the trumpeting and stomping, the mom-and-pop hardware stores--the "grass," if you will--have suffered most. Many were simply big-boxed out of business.

Many, but not all. Returning to the current phone book--and my quest for a trash can--I found a number of small hardware stores within a few minutes' drive of my home. How have these small-fry merchants managed to keep the lights on? Did I really have to go beyond the Beltway for home-care products, or could mom and pop give me the hook-up after all? I reluctantly got into my car and went to find out.

My first stop was tiny Schneider's Hardware (700 Wyndhurst Ave., [410] 889-2117). Though it occupies the first floor of an aged shingle house in the middle of shady, socially registered Roland Park, the store wouldn't look out of place along Main Street in Mayberry. Push mowers, potted mums, and galvanized wash tubs dot the sidewalk out front. Inside, the cramped store is a virtual cave of hardware, with plant sprayers dangling from overhead strings and shelves overflowing with everything from dog bones to fertilizer. It's a homey little place, but I picked a horrible time to visit. Paul Pratt, a beloved neighborhood fixture who had run Schneider's since the early '50s, had died the day before. (Indeed, his son Jeffrey Pratt--who largely runs the store today--was on the phone with a Sun obituary writer when I arrived.) Not the best time to ask a lot of questions. I did manage to speak with Paul Pratt's daughter, Susan Collins, about Schneider's survival in the age of 100,000-square-foot super stores. She chalks it up to her late father's convivial personality and attentive service. Schneider's will replace window screens and glass and even rewire lamps, she says.

"We cater to local residents," Collins says. "Folks that don't want to have to drive all the way to Towson for hardware. And we carry things that suburban stores don't. Radiator keys are a biggie."

Not wanting to overstay my welcome amid the grieving family, I buy a trash can ($14.95--no worse than at the Depot) and leave blue-blood Roland Park for blue-collar Hampden. Specifically, I head for a buff-colored building at the corner of Chestnut Avenue and 34th Street (yes, the Christmas-light block), where there's been a hardware store since 1900. The place has had many names over the century. From 1968 to 1988 it was Falkenhan's Hardware, and since '98 it's been Falkenhan's Hardware (3401 Chestnut Ave., [410] 235-7771) again. The basement-level store is run by Deborah Falkenhan, whose father, a still-working master plumber, ran the earlier version of the store.

The ceiling is low, the aisles narrow, and the selection surprisingly broad in the subterranean store. Handsome antique oak cases and cabinets bear labels reminiscent of an old-time catalog: COTTER PINS, ROPE CLEATS, ICE-BOX HANDLES.

"Here you can buy one screw or three nails," Falkenhan says, proudly. "Try that at Home Depot. It's almost like penny candy, only we're talking nails and screws."

Plumbing equipment seems to be a store specialty, no surprise given the elder Falkenhan's background. But the steady stream of customers trooping out on a rainy Tuesday afternoon have a variety of needs: picture hangers, oven cleaner, flea dip. Deborah Falkenhan, a life-long Hampdenite, greets most of the people by name. At one point, a couple comes banging down the steps carrying several large, battered screen doors. (Falkenhan's is also a practitioner of the lost art of repairing and replacing screens.)

"I just had a lady come down from Cockeysville and bring us 13 screens to work on," Falkenhan says. "For a small store, we offer a lot of service, and we'll go out of our way to find stuff for people."

It soon becomes too busy for chat, so I head over to Bolton Hill and a tiny hardware store tucked in a strip shopping center. Belle Hardware (232 McMechen St., [410)] 728-4844) is a small shop--as narrow as a single Home Depot aisle. But owner Janice McCulley isn't intimidated by the mammoth home centers. She opened Belle with her husband 21 years ago. Now her grown son, Mickey Fried (whose yellowing grammar- school artwork is displayed behind the counter), helps her run the place.

"Home Depot doesn't cater to the urban customer like we do," McCulley says. "You go into Home Depot and ask for a sash chain for a window and they look at you like they don't know what you're talking about. Ask them for a mousetrap and they'll have one kind on the shelf." (Belle has an impressive rodent- and roach-control center--all manner of traps, poisons, and potions. Ah, city life.)

Though the store is independently owned and operated, it's a member of the national Do It Best hardware chain; McCulley says the affiliation allows her to compete price-wise with the bigger stores. But the vibe here is pure mom-and-pop. "You can purchase one or a hundred" of the wide variety of screws, nails, and bolts, the owner says. As I leave, store manager and 15-year hardware veteran Maurice Jackson (whom McCulley jokingly calls her "daytime husband") is whistling away as he fixes a screen at the rear of the store.

Ironically, I end my hardware journey at the store nearest my house. You can't miss E. Hoffman Hardware (2112-18 Greenmount Ave., [410] 889-0602), as its light yellow edifice dominates a stretch of the hardscrabble Barclay neighborhood. Willie Bell--who looks a bit like the actor Charles Dutton--has owned the place since 1998. He's been working for E. Hoffman since 1972, a year before the store moved to Greenmount from Pennsylvania Avenue.

"We have a one-on-one relationship with our customers," Bell says, explaining the store's longevity. "We're hands-on. I'll show a customer how to fix a faucet. You go to Home Depot and, if you're lucky, maybe they'll have a video showing you how to do it."

Hoffman's walls are lined with pegboards bearing sundry tools, and the shelves are stacked with cleaning supplies, garden hoses, and plant pots. However, a lot of business is geared to contractors, and a large behind-the-scenes storage room holds all types of plumbing and electrical supplies. Like other urban stores, Bell fixes window screens and glass. Hoffman's also functions as an impromptu community center, with folks sitting around shooting the breeze. There's even a television blaring away.

Bell says he's had offers to move the store to Govans. Barclay has seen better days, but it's where Bell was born and where he intends to stay. When I ask him if he thinks Home Depot will ever move into the city (as national grocery chains finally seem to be doing), Bell seems doubtful.

"Well, let me put it this way," he says, after a pause. "I hope not."

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