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And Grandpa's Hardware Store Is Still Around

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By John Luck
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 8, 2000; Page H01

Despite years of market consolidation in the Washington area, where the once preeminent Hechingers no longer exists and huge "home center" chains dominate the do-it-yourself landscape, the little neighborhood hardware store is still in business.

These independent stores are often members of volume purchasing and advertising co-ops, such as Ace Hardware, Trustworthy, ServiStar or True Value. They survive against the big-box competition by nurturing a loyal customer base, usually drawn from surrounding housing areas, and by offering services and carrying products not found at larger stores.

It may take some looking, but there are still nearby places where you can park your car right at the front door, get a mower blade sharpened and find a stem washer for that leaking 1960s laundry faucet in your basement. And find one-on-one service inside, often from the actual owner. (Imagine the CEO of Home Depot mixing up your quart of semi-gloss.) Here are three local stores that have weathered the changes in the world of D-I-Y:

FAIRFAX HARDWARE

Nestled between a pizza emporium and a barbershop along busy Rt. 236, this store, with its worn linoleum floor, carries an eclectic selection: old-fashioned washboards, loose nails sold by the pound (not sealed in sissy blister packs), cast-iron frying pans, Mason jars and canning supplies, galvanized steel buckets, 50-pound salt blocks, farrier's tools, bandannas and even a glass case display of jackknives.

Opened in 1953, Fairfax Hardware now serves the grandchildren of its first customers. Owner Jeff Dominick is fully aware of his competition: "There's a Home Depot right up the road from us. We can't beat their prices; we simply have to offer better service to our clients," says Dominick.

Employees rescreen windows and cut replacement glass, tasks not performed by Home Depot. And they specialize in local knowledge and expertise: "We've been here for almost 50 years; we know how the nearby houses were built and what they need to keep in operation. We carry screw-in fuses for older circuit boxes, and many of the front doors of nearby homes require a unique type of replacement weatherstripping, which we make sure to always keep in stock," says Dominick.

STROSNIDERS

This local store is actually a chain, with two locations and another one opening soon. (Watch out, Home Depot: They're only about 900 branches behind you!) A popular gathering spot for contractors and do-it-yourselfers in Potomac and Bethesda, Strosniders, which was started in 1953, not only offers standard hardware store services, such as glass cutting and tool sharpening, but also includes on-site notaries public and a UPS shipping desk.

A heap of metal shavings glinting like gold dust around a key-duplicating machine attests to the number of keys made here. Peter McCloskey, president of the company and general manager at the Potomac location, stresses customer service. "We specialize in the service end of the hardware business. Time is valuable to our clients, and we keep a lot of employees on the sales floor. Our customers don't have to walk around a warehouse for 20 minutes trying to find someone to help them."

Business is good. A new Strosniders will be opening soon in downtown Silver Spring. "I don't look on the Home Depots and Lowes as enemies," says McCloskey. "There'll always be room for both the independent hardware stores and the large home-center chains. We don't sell drywall or lumber, and they don't offer the level of convenience and personal service we do."

CANDEY HARDWARE

Neighborhood hardware stores aren't just in suburban neighborhoods. The District has more than 30 independent neighborhood hardware stores. On busy 18th Street NW just off Connecticut Avenue, surrounded by high-rise offices, Candey Hardware has been in existence since 1891.

Gwen Loftin is the fourth-generation owner of the business. "Lunchtime is our busy time," she says. "That's when we have large numbers of nearby office workers come in to have keys made and to gather material for weekend projects."

Like other independents, Candey fine-tunes its offerings to meet local demand, cutting keys and selling such appliances as high-end under-counter refrigerators, icemakers and wine chillers; Miele dishwashers and vacuum cleaners; and the Italian Equator washer-drier combo good for apartment dwellers pressed for space. "You meet a lot of people in this hardware store," says Eric Mattsson, Loftin's son-in-law.

John Luck is a writer and home renovator in Northern Virginia.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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