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Charmed Life

Handy Man

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 5/2/2001

In a crowded, closet-sized basement office, David Lilley flips open a notepad and jots down the names of neighborhood hardware stores that used to serve Baltimore's northeastern corridor. He reads them off: Bond Lumber, Ridge Lumber, Hechinger's, Edwards Hardware . . . Bell Hardware, Montebello Hardware. . . . In all, 11 stores have closed in a mere 10 years, leaving just two competitors: the humongous 8-year-old Home Depot in Perring Plaza and Lilley's own store, Lehman Hardware, in Overlea.

But this isn't a David-and-Goliath story; at a solid 6-foot-plus, Lilley is hard to cast as "the little guy." Rather, it's a Darwinistic fable, the moral of which is "adapt or perish." The other old stores closed for many reasons--retirement, fire, sheer failure--but not, Lilley says, because they couldn't have survived in the shadow of the Home Depot. "That," he declares, "is the myth."

He credits his own success to a range of strategies and tactics deployed over 25 years in the trade--serving niche needs, selling hard-to-find parts, "doing things that people find the big boys can't do," such as cutting glass and repairing small engines. Appropriately for a store surrounded by 60- and 70-year-old housing tracts, Lehman Hardware specializes in replacing antique fixtures--even old-fashioned skeleton keys. As to Home Depot, Lilley shrugs, "I'll bet you I have more inventory than they do, especially in the small stuff. The only thing I don't do is lumber." When the megastore opened in 1992, Lilley says, "I was doing fantastic, so I didn't feel the impact."

Lilley's store at 5921 Belair Road looks like something out of Anne Tyler's novel Breathing Lessons, a boxy brick storefront glommed onto a pair of gabled, '30s-style rowhouses. Out front, a small fleet of lawn mowers--a house specialty--takes up most of a tarmac apron. A tall, vaguely bow-tie-shaped plastic sign looms overhead; after 43 years on the job, it still serves its purpose, announcing hardware in block letters readable a quarter-mile away. The business started in 1958 as Kelly's Hardware, a name it kept until 1986, when Lilley took over. (Lehman is his middle name, he explains, adding, "I just didn't want to call it Lilley's Hardware.")

Inside, the owner's boast about inventory rings true. Crammed into the two-rowhouse space is an array of domestic technology equivalent to, say, three or even four of the canyonlike aisles that run through Home Depot's city-block-sized shed. Where the Depot stocks huge numbers of duplicate items to serve its legion of customers, Lehman Hardware thrives on diversity. Take, for example, the rack near the checkout counter that holds two or three each of 30 different kinds of cutting line for weed-whackers. Separated by the narrowest of aisles, shelves throughout the store reach floor-to-ceiling, sprouting dense, intuitively organized assortments of goods--plumbing fixtures, electrical products, solvents, fasteners, tools, hoses, the works. The ceiling itself is plastered with safety-orange signage; the stairwell to the basement is festooned with rubber drive belts. Not one cubic foot goes to waste, and there's more stuff in storage across the street.

This is how hardware shopping used to be done: No 20-minute treks from paint to plumbing to plaster, no carts, no vying for scarce parking spaces and overstressed clerks. For me, Lehman Hardware calls up memories of a similarly airless general store in my hometown, right down to the gum machines by the front door and the shopwomen who seem to know where to find everything. If they're stumped, they ask the boss, who retains a phenomenal amount of information in his capacious, balding head. Self-taught as merchant, locksmith, and mechanic, Lilley apparently knows not just the location of everything in stock but how each item is used and how to fix it if it breaks.

Lilley, who describes himself as "closing in on the big six-oh" but looks younger, exudes the calm confidence of a man who has hit his stride. The Overlea store and a nearby repair shop represent a happy retrenchment for him; he used to own several stores but sold the rest off a few years back. Even here, he admits, it might be time to stop accumulating new stuff. "I think I might stop going to [trade] shows," he says, with a smile that suggests that he might not.

Right now, however, it's spring, and despite a sputtering general economy, the grass is coming fast up all over town. That's good news for a guy who sells mowers, trimmers, hoses, mulch, extension cords . . .

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