The hardwood floors always seemed oil-stained, and the change-eating vending machine housed ancient candy bars, but the local hardware store was a place of distinction in every small town in America. Kids became grownups among other grownups, listening to older gentlemen complain about the lack of rain and talk about the most recent watershed meeting. Most folks were only there after a few ounces of 2-stroke engine oil or something similar, but going down to the hardware store was an escape for fathers and mothers and neighborly country folk with similar interests – and the kids always relished tagging along. And every time someone’s change got lost in those stale candy machines, it was no big deal, the owner and only person who worked there would flip another coin from his register without a second thought. Trips to those local hardware stores were, and still are today, oftentimes more about community than the hardware.
Descendants of the countrywide network of general stores from the 1800s and reaching their heyday in the 1920s, hardware stores laced the nation, capturing neighborhoods and linking communities. By the late 1960s, Main Street America had begun to shrivel, and the country was tossing community hardware stores aside in favor of national big-box stores, with their seemingly endless variety and low prices. Yet, despite all this progress, the community hardware store has managed to keep afloat with a solid grip across Hometown U.S.A.
Revered Raleigh relic
One top-of-the-line hardware store, The Thomas H. Briggs General Store, located in Raleigh, North Carolina, keeps pulling its weight and has survived since it opened in 1865.
“Our family survived the Great Depression,” says owner Evelyn Murray.
“And we adapted to a changing hardware industry plus a location transformation,” adds brother and co-owner Mark Scruggs.
Simply put, hardware stores help create and maintain a community atmosphere. “We help keep the neighborhoods like they used to be. And we provide good service to our customers,” Murray says. “At the same time, we offer specialties that the box stores don’t.”
The brother and sister team handle the day-to-day operations with their father, Marcus Scruggs.
“It’s cool to be a part of something like this,” Murray says. “Working with family is tough, but it defines who we are.”
“T.H. was quite the carpenter and builder,” says Mark Scruggs. “Customers would travel for hours to shop with us. We were the only toy store to offer layaway before J.C. Penney came to town.”
According to family lore, Thomas H. Briggs exchanged his Confederate money for gold and buried it in Devereaux Meadow, a landscape close to downtown Raleigh, to keep it safe until the war was over. Trees were used as markers. “When the time was right, Granddaddy dug to find the hidden money,” says Scruggs. “In 1874, Briggs built a family-run four-story hardware store on Fayetteville Street that was the tallest building in Raleigh. The store remained in business for the next 100 years, and today stands as the oldest commercial building in the downtown area.
In 1995, Fayetteville Street was converted to a mall. “Progress forced us out, and the city took away our parking areas. Customers had no place to park while shopping with us,” says Scruggs. “It hurt business and forced us to close the original store. Our heart is still down there at the old place.”
The next chapter
Not wanting to ‘pull the plug’ on six generations in the hardware business, the brother and sister team moved to a new location near a bustling intersection of the Raleigh Beltline where they have re-established the Briggs legacy.
“My father kept this business going,” says Scruggs. “And we plan on getting through these times. The trick is having the ability to be flexible and being able to change with the times. You have to transform to other sales categories when you see what’s going on. The ability to be flexible is important. During the Model T days, we sold tires; during the 1920s, we sold wool batting for clothing. Now we sell brass hardware, mainly for new homes.”
These days the store is oriented toward hardware equipment. One quarter of the store was recently transformed into a general store, equipped with cast-iron cookware, country hams, homemade preserves and additional items, such as lamp oil, lye soap, candies, marbles, jacks and classic toys. “We continue to sell nails by the pound and screws by the inch,” Scruggs says.
Murray keeps the general store idea alive for people who wish to live the simple life and keep their memories going. “One of our biggest sellers is old-fashioned country ham, going back to simpler times on the farm,” she says. “During the year we sell hundreds of crocks of Angus Barn specialty cheese and Texas barbecue sauce. We have paired with a satellite store who supplies us with country food, and the competition is extremely low. We’re looking forward to celebrating the 150th anniversary in 2015.”
Debnam’s of Zebulon
Another thriving hardware store is Debnam’s in Zebulon, North Carolina. Jim and Hilda Debnam boast three generations of hardware history.
“My grandfather, M.T. Debnam, began as a blacksmith in 1918 in this location and became a mainstay of the town,” Jim Debnam says. “We’re trying to keep the idea of ‘community’ alive and offer great customer service.”
Debnam’s father, James, took over the business for the next 35 years, until he was 65, and Jim purchased the business in 1995.
“To stay in business, we got lean and mean and paid attention to the pulse of our hardware store to determine what we needed to fix to survive. We found inventory not what it should be and improved on that aspect. We also began to pay more attention to the customers. In other words, we sharpened our pencil,” Debnam says
The lawn and garden area plays a major part in sales. “We sell a ton of loose seeds. It goes back to the time when people lived off the land. We are still a working hardware store,” Debnam says, “with all the products and services you would expect from a top-of-the-line hardware business.
“We don’t offer fancy frills,” he says, “just a down-home variety of hard-to-find items – not just in hardware and tools, but also in housewares and outdoor living. In the thick of things, we can brag about being a friendly family who welcomes everyone to ask questions or just hang out and chat with us.”
Debnam Hardware prides itself as ‘a convenience hardware store’ with a broad selection of more than 11,000 items in the system. “We still make a living profit,” says Debnam. “And we’re here to stay.”
Anita Stone is a science teacher, author and freelance writer who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is a columnist for two state newspapers, and her articles have appeared in more than 30 local and regional publications.
Read about a long-standing hardware store in Monticello, Iowa: McNeill Hardware
With a little attention to community and the people who make them, even a big-box outfit can serve as an excellent hardware store with a small-town feel. Readers, take us back to your favorite old hardware store, and there’s a chance your story could run in the magazine. Please email profiles and any images to editor@Grit.com, or mail them to Grit, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS, 66609.
Thomas H. Briggs Hardware
2533 Atlantic Ave., Ste. 104
Raleigh, NC 27604
117 N. Arendell Ave.
Zebulon, NC 27597
P.O. Box 270
Kidron, OH 44636