Hardware Made a Little Easier

Gina Schaefer and Marc Friedman plan to open a fourth D.C. hardware store.
Gina Schaefer and Marc Friedman plan to open a fourth D.C. hardware store. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Gina Schaefer had no clue how to rewire a lamp or change a toilet flapper in 2002 when she decided to open a hardware store in gentrifying Logan Circle.

But she and her husband, Marc Friedman, both former techies, quickly learned the nuts and bolts of the business. They also discovered just how hardware-starved Northwest Washington's homeowners and renters really were.

This month -- after launching a second store, Glover Park Hardware, in 2005 and a third, Tenleytown Ace Hardware, in June -- they signed a letter of intent for a fourth in an unfinished retail-residential complex north of Chinatown. Long before that anticipated 2008 opening, however, they hope to acquire several more locations to sell such proven staples as saw blades, bathtub mats, door locks, paint, flower pots, cat litter, keys and apartment-size appliances.

Friedman credits their rapid growth -- they now employ 65 -- to "dense population and walk-in traffic in fairly under-served areas. There is only one Home Depot in D.C., and that's in Northeast. In the suburbs, the competition is among Home Depot, Lowe's, Wal-Mart, Big Lots, small hardware stores and dollar stores. We don't have that."

Schaefer, 35, and Friedman, 33, are part of a national center-city hardware store boomlet that includes Chicago and Manhattan, as homeownership in urban areas has become more desirable in recent years, says Chris Jensen, executive editor of Hardware Retailing.

Jensen calls the Washington couple "probably the ideal retailers illustrating this trend, who have figured out how to create an attractive store that resonates. Not only did they start with one store, they launched others."

Hundreds of potential D.C. customers live near all their locations: young professionals in new apartments, empty-nesters who traded suburban sprawl and traffic for smaller city quarters, and growing families in older homes.

Back in 1962, there were about 50 independently owned hardware stores listed in the Washington Yellow Pages. But recession, demographic shifts and competition from discount and do-it-yourself chains took their toll. This year, only 15 independents are listed.

These new hardware emporiums consciously try to evoke a bygone era when shoppers and clerks chatted at length, stock was varied enough to create the feeling of a general store, and customer service ruled.

Ah, yes, customer service.

"You are starting to see a little bit of growing dissatisfaction with the big-box stores, a resurgence in the local hardware store and nostalgia for the old hometown feeling," says Mark Delaney, home improvement director for NPD Group, a global retail and customer information firm in Port Washington, N.Y. "A lot of that is driven by a push to installation services by the big-box stores, so the sales folks in the aisle can't help you buy a screw or nail because now they are busy helping a couple buy kitchen cabinets. It can be alienating."

The Hutchinsons -- dad Gary, mom Bernice, daughter Allie and toy poodle Lilly -- responded immediately to the staff at Logan Hardware, near 13th and P streets NW, where they recently bought keys and light bulbs for their new Southwest Washington home.

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