All the many parts: After a tragedy, can anything save Nichols Hardware?

The hand-lettered sign taped against the glass pane of the red front door said “Closed Due to Death in Family.”

It was dark inside Nichols Hardware store. Outside, the early September afternoon was flooded with brilliant sunshine and soft breezes. The big windows facing the street were filled with arrangements of seasonal supplies, rakes and canning materials and apple barrels. A message on poster board propped on the front steps read: “Ted and Karen — You will remain in our hearts forever.” It was framed by wreaths, vases of flowers, unlit candles.

A middle-age woman in a long dress passed by on the sidewalk. When she saw the display, she stopped abruptly, moved closer to read the sign. Then she pressed her palm to her mouth. Her eyes watered.

“Oh, God,” she said.

The accident had happened the day before, on a Sunday afternoon. Ted Nichols, 64, the third-generation co-owner of the landmark Nichols Hardware Store in Purcellville, was in an SUV with his wife, Karen Nichols, 63, and several of Karen’s family members: her two brothers, her sister, her sister-in-law and her mother, Doris Louer. Doris had just turned 90. They were on their way home after picking apples together when the Chevy Suburban edged off the side of the road on Route 55 in Warren County. The driver, Karen’s brother, Robert Louer, overcorrected, and the vehicle careened over an embankment and into a tree. Ted, Karen and Doris died in the crash.

Word of the accident spread quickly. The outpouring of emotion overwhelmed Mark Nichols, Ted and Karen’s only son, and his wife, Debbie. Everyone wanted to tell Mark what his parents had meant to Purcellville, how they were a part of the very heart of the town.

For generations, Nichols Hardware has been a seemingly immortal sanctuary, staying much the same as it was when it opened 97 years ago. Many residents of Purcellville were aware that there was no apparent fourth-generation heir who intended to take over the store, and this was understood to be a sensitive topic that was best not to think about. But now, in the aftermath of the accident, there was the unwelcome realization that Nichols Hardware might already be running out of time.

***

Two days after the accident, the other owner of Nichols Hardware — Ken Nichols, Ted’s 80-year-old uncle — reopened the doors. He took his place in the office at the back of the store, elevated above the creaky wooden floors and overlooking the narrow aisles packed with merchandise. Even the ceiling of the store was crowded, with bird feeders and tricycles and wooden porch swings suspended in the air.

“We are a service-oriented store. We try to serve the public,” Ken said. “Being closed doesn’t do that.”

It was a grasp at normalcy in the wake of a tragedy that he knew would eventually change everything. But he was not going to think about that yet. Ken tried to focus on the paperwork on his desk, but people kept coming by. They wanted to offer their condolences to him and to the employees, most of whom had worked there for 20 or 30 or 50 years.

It wasn’t the first time Ken had found himself adjusting to a new reality defined by sudden loss. In 2007, his 87-year-old brother, Edward E. Nichols Jr. — Ted’s father and the retired co-owner of the store — shot his wife, Margaret Nichols, and then himself in their home. Margaret, also 87, had suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Edward was losing his eyesight and could no longer care for her.

Ken had been thinking about them. Growing old, losing your independence — it’s a terrible thing, he said.

“I can understand why he did it,” he said of his brother. “I just don’t understand how.”

***

Hamilton Baptist Church was packed to capacity five days after the accident. Sprays of roses, lilies and sunflowers sat atop the three caskets in a row near the altar.

Mark Nichols, 32, who inherited his father’s all-American good looks and steadfast stoicism, sat in the front row, wearing sunglasses to hide his eyes. His wife, Debbie, a slender brunette, was beside him along with their 6-year-old daughter, Natalie. Their 2-year-old son, Luke, was nearby with his aunts.

In 2004, Mark had sat in the same church for his 23-year-old sister’s funeral. Alison was born with cerebral palsy, and though she never spoke, her vivid presence and personality defined Mark’s aspirations: His younger sister was the reason Mark had decided to work as a special education supervisor with Loudoun County schools.

Halfway through the service for Ted, Karen and Doris, mourners were invited to share their thoughts and memories.

After others spoke, a woman in a blue shirt and a white jacket stepped to the front of the church, visibly trembling. She said she only knew Ted through Nichols Hardware, beginning in 1977, when she came to Loudoun as a single mother with three children.

“The Nichols Hardware store was my refuge.” She gestured to the employees sitting together in front of her. “When I needed a lawn mower that my teenage boy could use safely, I went to Ted, and I said, ‘I don’t have much money, Ted. …’ He said, ‘You pay as you go.’ He said, ‘You take it home, and if you need any help with it, you let us know.’ And that’s the way it was. And that’s the way they are.”

Former Purcellville mayor John Marsh was among the last to speak. He couldn’t turn down an opportunity to address a crowd, he joked.

“We have in this community — and it’s known throughout Virginia — a legacy named Nichols Hardware,” he said. “When you want to find something, you go to these gentlemen in the second row.” He nodded toward them. “May it continue in your hands.”

He turned to Mark, sitting before him.

“And, Mark, good luck with it,” he said. “May you always write the receipts by hand.”

***

Nichols Hardware opened on North 21st Street just before Christmas in 1914. It was a cream-colored brick building with huge display windows and big, burgundy front doors in the heart of downtown Purcellville.

Loudoun County in the early 1900s was a seemingly endless expanse of rolling farmland at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Edward Nichols Sr. — Ted’s grandfather — stocked his store with supplies for a rural farming community: radio batteries for houses that didn’t yet have electricity, harnesses and horse collars for working animals, tools for harvesting crops. Ledgers were used to keep track of running tabs for store customers. The flow of business was constant.

Edward Nichols Sr.’s sons, Edward Nichols Jr. and Ken, worked in the store all their lives and became Nichols Hardware’s second-generation owners. They saw how progress changed what it meant to be a farmer in Loudoun County; they adjusted their stock to reflect the latest equipment and modern technologies. The last of the horse collars and harnesses were sold to an Amish farmer from Pennsylvania in the late 1940s.

Ted joined his father in the hardware store when he was a young boy. Ted always thought he might like to be a farmer, but there wasn’t really a question that he would take his place as the third-generation owner of the hardware store. He, too, watched the world outside the big red doors continue to change. Loudoun became one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing counties in the nation. Big chain hardware stores moved into nearby communities — Lowe’s, Ace, Home Depot — offering warehouse prices, massive inventories and online ordering.

But the store retained a fiercely loyal customer base that included local farmers and homeowners, as well as those who traveled for miles because they knew they’d find exactly the gadget they needed. Several players from the Washington Redskins, including Chris Cooley, became regular customers; so did political commentator Oliver North and actor Robert Duvall. Secret Service agents guarded the windows and doors when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came to shop. Nichols Hardware became the oldest retail store in the Piedmont region that was still owned by its founding family.

When Nichols Jr. died, Ted assumed his father’s co-ownership of the store. But this was where the passing of a family legacy from one generation to the next became complicated. Though Mark had helped out in the store as a teenager and loved the place, it wasn’t a career calling the way it had been to his father and grandfather and great-grandfather. The same was true of Ken’s son, Don, who became a veterinarian.

Ted and Karen had made sure that Mark knew it was okay if he didn’t want to work at the hardware store. It was up to him; they wanted him to find his own path. And they were proud when Mark ultimately chose a career that honored their devotion to their daughter and other children with disabilities. It was a choice that they knew was equally inspired by a defining family legacy.

***

After the accident that killed Ted, Ken started coming to Nichols Hardware every day. He insisted on closing the store each evening; for nearly a century, the doors had never been locked by anyone but a Nichols man.

The longtime employees worried about him. Rick Barton, who had worked at Nichols for 27 years, picked Ken up and took him home regularly — nightfall was coming earlier every day, and it wasn’t safe for Ken to drive in the dark. Even when Ken finally agreed to take a day off, he wanted to be brought to the store in the evening to help close it down.

Hugh Edmonds, an employee of more than 50 years, said he wished that Ken didn’t feel as though he had to do quite so much.

“If we could keep him up in the office doing paperwork, that’d be one thing,” Edmonds said. “But when it gets busy, he feels he should come down and wait on customers.”

One November afternoon, Ken tried to carry two cans of paint. The weight was too much; he lost his balance and fell.

The guys didn’t ask Ken what was going to happen to the store. They just followed his lead. He was still coming to work every day, so they were coming, too.

John Janney — grandson of Asa Janney, who helped Nichols Sr. with the store when it first opened — said he took on extra shifts after the accident.

“Ken’s personal goal is [for Nichols] to make it to 100 years, I think,” Janney said.

***

It amazed Debbie how Mark was always so task-oriented and organized, even in the midst of profound grief. And the deaths of his parents left him with no shortage of tasks: Beyond the looming question about the store, there were unavoidable logistics to address — documents and finances and a lifetime’s worth of possessions and records. Less than two months after the accident, Mark and Debbie moved their family out of their home in Round Hill and into the house where Mark had grown up in Purcellville. The Round Hill house would sell faster, they knew, and they didn’t want to carry two mortgage payments. Mark wasn’t ready to part with his childhood home yet, either.

They were changing the Purcellville house, getting it ready to be put on the market, as well. That meant remodeling the kitchen where Karen, a legendary baker, had loved to cook; it meant redecorating the bedroom that hadn’t been touched since Alison last slept there, surrounded by delicate angel figurines.

Debbie, Mark’s high school sweetheart, was the expressive one when it came to discussing what the family was going through. Mark was self-admittedly not a talker. When he did speak about the loss of his family, his voice was calm and composed, and focused on what had to be done: new carpets, new cabinets, fresh coats of paint.

“I think I know him better than anyone, and I still have trouble reading him,” Debbie said. “I just hope it’ll come out when it’s supposed to.”

One evening, Mark came home from work and noticed that Debbie had set an old package of eggs on the counter. He asked her if they need to be thrown out; she said yes.

Mark remembers carrying the carton into the back yard. It was cold outside, and he was still in his shirt and tie. He took one egg out of the carton and pitched it into the darkness. He heard it burst against the trunk of an old pine tree. He threw another, as hard as he could. He couldn’t see the egg hit the tree, but there was the sound, a crunch of shell splattering against bark. The night was quiet otherwise. He threw again, and again, until the carton was empty.

***

Mark tried not to spend a lot of time at the store in the months after the accident. Every time he went there, customers asked what was going to happen to Nichols, or wanted to know how he was doing. But he didn’t have answers yet.

Mark and Debbie both felt a powerful sense of obligation to the people who had worked at the store for so long. A few days before Christmas, they set up a holiday feast in the back room for the guys as a thank you for their steadfast support and hard work during the annual inventory.

“This is a unique group of extremely loyal employees who would not transition well back into the workforce,” Mark said. “We want to do what we can to keep the store open, but it’s a double-edged sword with no real good outcome.”

Mark and Ken had talked a few times about how to proceed with the business, but there was still no clear direction forward. They could try to hire someone to help out with the responsibilities Ted had handled; but the employees had established a precise equilibrium over decades together, and it was hard to know whether an outsider would adapt.

“The store is his life,” Mark said of Ken. “He doesn’t want to see it close. But there’s no magical family member who is going to come forward to run it.”

The other problem was this: Even if Nichols Hardware stayed open, it wouldn’t stay the same. The fantasy scenario might be a buyer who would invest in the landmark and maintain the same age-old traditions; but Mark couldn’t imagine another owner who would want to continue the tedious and time-consuming practices that Nichols Hardware employees knew by heart. Computers could finish inventory in a day or two, tally purchases in half the time, keep track of where every screw and washer is supposed to be. It would all be so much more efficient. And it might keep the doors open, but the essence of the store would be lost.

“On one hand, it’s a part of my life,” Mark said. “On the other hand, it’s been a part of my life because it was my dad’s store, and now he’s gone.”

He leaned back in his chair at his parents’ kitchen table and smiled wearily at his wife and at his two children, who were playing with a toy tool set on the floor.

***

Rick Barton locked the front door just a few minutes before closing time on a Wednesday in February. He turned the lights out in the back. He and Frank Myers were the last two there with Ken that night. They closed out the cash register together.

Ken came down from the upstairs office to hand them their paychecks and take the receipts from Barton. “These are all the tickets from today,” Ken said. “Not as many as there ought to be. But business is not too good.” He hoped things would pick up in the spring.

Myers watched as Ken made his way back to the office. Myers had been at Nichols Hardware for 20 years, and it had remained a welcoming place for him since he had had major surgery five years ago to remove 20 percent of his brain — a result of worsening injuries from a car accident more than 30 years ago. Myers moved a bit slower now, and had to concentrate when he spoke, but at the store he was part of a family.

He wasn’t sure what he would do if Nichols closed.

“I think when it’s time …” he began. He paused to think.

“I think it’s. …” he stopped again.

“I guess I’ll be led somewhere else.”

Ken had his hat and jacket on when a young man who looked to be in his late teens walked in through the side door.

“What do you need?” Ken asked him.

“Just a washer to fit over this,” he said, holding up a short piece of metal tubing.

Ken pulled open a small wooden drawer in a wall full of small wooden drawers. He took out a washer. It was too big; he tried another. The two stood together in the faint half-light, bent over the open drawer.

“Perfect!” the young customer declared.

“How many do you need?” Ken asked him.

Just one, he answered.

“Okay, I won’t charge you for that,” Ken said. The kid thanked him and slipped out the side door.

“We serve the public; that’s what we do,” Ken said, almost to himself. He picked up his cane, followed Barton to the side door and locked it after Barton went through. Then he made his way slowly down the darkened aisle to the front door. He checked the furnace; he turned on the alarm, which beeped out a warning. Ken moved through the door as quickly as he could. Rick was already waiting with the car at the curb, passenger door open.

Ken locked the door and jiggled the handle once, twice, three times.

***

There were dozens of boxes in the basement that Mark and Debbie were finally beginning to sort through. Buried among them were countless historic artifacts: Nichols Hardware toy catalogues from the 1950s, and the 1915 bill of sale for the old safe that still sat in the store’s office. An original Flexible Flyer toboggan was propped near furniture that belonged to Ted’s parents.

While rummaging through the boxes one day, Mark found an old jar: hand-carved gray-tinted glass with a cork lid. He opened it, and the smell of old tobacco spilled into the stale basement air. Immediately, he was 10 years old, sitting in the sunroom with his father, watching him fill his pipe.

There was an instinctive desire to share the revelation, and Mark brought the jar to Debbie upstairs. He told her to close her eyes and breathe deeply — and she did, but the associative power of the scent was for Mark alone.

***

Ted Nichols sat in a chair before an old wooden wall in the Purcellville studio of Loudoun filmmakers Sarah Huntington, Drew Babb and Peter Buck. The trio had begun work on a documentary titled “Nichols: The Last Hardware Store” in 2008. [Watch the trailer here.] Ted came to their studio to be interviewed in 2009. There were about 10 or 12 minutes of him captured on video.

In the unedited footage, Ted waited patiently as the lighting and sound were adjusted. He wore glasses and a blue collared shirt with a pen peeking out of the front pocket. His thinning blond hair was neatly combed.

Babb asked about Ted’s earliest memory of the store.

“My early memories of Nichols are, believe it or not, TV sets,” Ted said. His family didn’t have a television yet, and the store was just beginning to carry coveted black-and-white sets, he said. His voice was gentle and measured, with a soft Southern accent.

Later, Babb asked Ted about the future of Nichols Hardware.

When he retires someday, maybe someone will buy the store, he said.

“Whether they keep it the same or not, I don’t know,” Ted added. He shrugged his shoulders slightly. “In the long term, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

***

In the early days of spring, Mark made a decision. He sold his father’s half of the store to Ken. Mark couldn’t imagine a way to remain involved with Nichols, at least not without changing the way it was run — and Ken couldn’t imagine changing the way it was run. Left unanswered were the long-term questions — if, or how, the store would continue.

As the days lengthened, there was a golden light on the front steps when Ken locked the door in the evenings. The guys at Nichols Hardware knew it was time to fill the gallon glass jars with seed and line the rotating display racks with flower packets. They would move the winter stock to the back of the store; place the watering cans, the gardening gloves and the pruning shears in the big front windows. They would arrange them just so, these tools for nurturing new life.

Caitlin Gibson is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at gibsonc@washpost.com.

 
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