Henry Wieder's Hardware Store had a closing sale here the other day, 40 years late.
For four decades, since shortly after Wieder's death in 1941, the store sat in the center of this Pennsylvania Dutch town, its shades drawn, its single ceiling lightbulb out. Everyone thought it was empty, if they thought about it at all.
Behind the shades, however, Wieder's remained the same, its contents kept in the same long, glass display cases and wooden wall shelves the old-timers who once shopped there remember. It was a Norman Rockwell setting, frozen in time, a time capsule waiting to be opened.
The shades finally were raised last weekend, as 750 people signed up to bid for a piece of the past on a day marked by snow showers and bone-chilling cold. It was, auctioneer Mark (Dutch) Kistler said, as if "the clock stopped in 1941 and started in 1981.
"It's new but old, we go back 40 years," he beamed as he auctioned off a plastic train that sold for $3.68 in 1941 for $65. An unassembled metal dollhouse went for $100, as did a small table-model radio. The highest-priced item was a windup toy featuring motorcars entering and exiting the Lincoln Tunnel. It sold for $400.
But Wieder's was mostly a nuts-and-bolts place, and antiquers who expected a treasure trove of "collectibles" largely were disappointed. "There's no glassware, no china or the things sometimes associated with country hardware stores," said an almost distraught college professor peering in the front window.
That was the message the auctioneer had tried to convey to curiosity seekers who called him, he said, from every state except Alaska and Hawaii after news of the sale spread by wire service around the nation. On auction day he even posted a written apology for the crowded sale "to anyone who was inconvenienced and we hope that in the future you still will patronize our auctions."
Kistler did his best, however, to unload the junk from the side porch facing Fourth Street, which was closed to traffic for the first time in memory for the event.
Across the street, 87-year-old Verna Marcks watched the goings-on from the sheltered warmth of the Victorian home she has occupied since 1909. There were two dozen people standing on her porch where they could see the action.
She could not understand for the life of her what all the fuss was about. "I don't know. People go for these things," she said. "They mean nothing to me."
The Wieders, however, did. From the time the Wieders opened for business in 1926, she knew both Henry and Emma, his wife. And although some remember the proprietor as not the friendliest of folks, she said, "He was a good businessman and a good citizen in Emmaus. She was a wonderful woman," she said. "Anyone who came in their store, they were eager to serve."
After her husband's death, Emma Wieder kept the store going for a short time with the help of her brother. Then she died and her niece and her husband moved into the residential rear of the building, but kept the store closed. They lived there until they both died some years ago. They left the building to a daughter, Emma Wieder's sole surviving heir. When she died earlier this year, her husband decided everything had to go.
While the building often was overlooked, its stucco exterior was maintained, its property taxes dutifully paid and, according to Verna Marcks, the heat and the living room light switched on every night, automatically.
Emmaus, meanwhile retained much of its old flavor. The downtown portion of this borough of 11,000 a few miles from Allentown held its own against the big new shopping malls. Parking meters are still a nickel, parking tickets a buck, and the vintage Emmaus Theater charges only $1.75 for all shows, where Christmas carols played by Guy Lombardo were heard between reels the other night.
The Wieder building is down the street from the theater and set back just a bit from Chestnut Street and Main, the hub of the shopping district. Over the years, merchants inquired about the building for new uses, for everything from a soup and salad bar to selling shoes, ice cream and real estate, but it was never for rent or for sale. Sentiment and eccentricity are the only explanations offered for the refusal of the Wieder's heirs to part with the place.
Janet and John Gould, who have the clothing store adjoining the Wieder building, were among those interested in acquiring it. "It's eerie," said Janet, who from her upstairs office across the alley has seen the same bottle of detergent sitting on a Wieder windowsill for nine years. "I want that Ivory Liquid bottle, if it's ever for sale," she said. "I think I deserve it."
Merchants had feared the auction crowd would drive away local shoppers the weekend before Christmas. But some local businesses reported an unexpected upturn of out-of-towners entering their shops. "We should have auctions more often," said Gail Prutsman at Terry's Family Restaurant, which had its best Saturday in years.
Not all of those attending the nine-hour auction came to spend money. There were older people who had shopped at the store in bygone days.
Some of the original prices still were affixed to the items for sale the other day. Four rat traps, priced at 25 cents for the lot, sold for $21. A bucksaw marked at $1.50 sold for $80.
"If old Wieder could see this," said Henry Musselman, 79, with a laugh. Added Vermond Landenslager, 69, "the stuff they have to sell I have at home myself and I'd gladly sell it for the prices they're getting."
But there would be no refunds for dissatisfied customers here. At Henry Wieder's closeout auction, all sales were final.