At seven each morning, Thomas E. Hatcher and six of his buddies meet at the McDonald's on Rte. 29 in Centreville to sip coffee and wait for Hunter Hardware to open.
One hour later, the men cross four lanes of bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic on Centreville's main road to reconvene in the back room of the store. There, Hatcher, Kenyon Davis, Johnny Williams and others spend the morning talking, drinking coffee, munching on doughnuts, telling jokes and helping customers when the store gets busy.
"This is the information center of western Fairfax and eastern Prince William County," said Hatcher, a tall, beefy man with a ruddy complexion who is known as the unofficial mayor of Centreville.
Hatcher and his friends have occupied the back room at Hunter Hardware, the only hardware store in Centreville, for the better part of 25 years. And along with Jack and Herb Hunter and Roger Bostic, the shop's owners, they have spent the last 10 years watching Centreville's rural roots get paved with roads and residences.
The store, smelling faintly of insecticide, fertilizer and straw, is a survivor in a market where small, privately owned hardware businesses are being replaced with large, flashy home improvement centers.
In fact, Jack Hunter said that business has never been better and that he expects to generate more than $500,000 in sales this year, almost double that of five years ago.
Instead of selling horse collars, live chickens and shotguns to farmers as he did in the early 1950s, Hunter is running tabs for construction firms and selling hand tools, nails, screws and industrial cleansers. "We'll turn over our inventory about six times this year," he said.
Hatcher, who retired in 1979 after serving 34 years as a commercial airline pilot, attributes the store's success to its hardworking employes and owners.
"If you want an answer to something, you can usually find it here," Hatcher said. "People call here to find out what time the McDonald's closes or what the phone number is to the drug store next door."
Hatcher, 66, has been dispensing information for nearly 30 years as president, chairman and director of various civic and service organizations, such as the Centreville Citizens Association, the Centreville Lions Club and the Centreville Masonic Lodge.
He earned the nickname "mayor" a quarter-century ago when "the girls at the post office received an advertisement for radar guns addressed to 'the Mayor of Centreville.' They thought it was a joke and sent it to me," he said.
The members of the all-male Hunter Hardware coffee club hang around the store until midafternoon, when they leave to go bowling, attend an antique auction or play a few rounds of golf.
Then it's back to Hunter Hardware to help assemble some wheelbarrows or put together newly arrived lawn mowers until dinner time.
"If we had to pay for the high price of talent we have here, let me tell you . . . " said Herb Hunter, who also owns the real estate office next door. "They are the most overworked, underpaid group around."
Jack Hunter said the store stands on the site of what used to be a Confederate fort during the Civil War. "Its remains were taken down with steam shovels in 1946," when the hardware store opened, he said.
To make sure their business remains standing, the Hunter brothers and Bostic stock their shelves to meet the needs of all their customers, not just the large construction companies or home builders who buy in bulk.
Where shotguns, animal heads and wooden sleds once lined the walls, there are now fishing poles, water coolers, patio torches and cedar chips for animal bedding. Aisles are lined with 25-pound sacks of rabbit and wild bird feed, ax handles, pitchforks and shovels in seven different sizes.
Bostic remembers when the store sold live chickens in the front "They are the most overworked, underpaid group around." -- hardware store co-owner Herb Hunter display window and farmers came in to hand pick their fowl.
"I used to know 90 percent of the people who walked in here," Bostic said. "I knew their name and I knew their kids' names. Now, a tremendous amount of people come in here I don't know."
Hatcher said he preferred the days when it did not take him 40 minutes to drive two miles from his home in western Centreville to the McDonald's each morning, when you could look at Bull Run Mountain in the distance and not see acres of town house developments and shopping centers in the foreground.
"But when you live here so long, you hate to pull up and leave," he said.