Family Store Knows The Nuts And Bolts Of Ferndale

November 20, 1990|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Look at the work gloves at Law Bros. Hardware and you can almost feel the rasp of sandpaper. The Ferndale landmark sells 23 kinds of gloves -- suede, burlap, neoprene-coated,tan and rust and black, all sturdy, all hinting of sawdust and sweat.

The gloves would last a lifetime, you imagine, almost like the old store. They hang in rows on an isle cluttered with bins of crop seed and crates of onion bulbs.

In this Norman Rockwell store, the kind people who grew up in small towns remember from childhood, everything looks a little disorganized. But proprietor George Law Jr. knows his inventory down to the tiniest bolt.

Sacks of cement stand waist-high next to an old Firestone electric fan.

Shelves hold hundreds of tools and drill bits and parts. Barrels of saws sit in corners; garden hoses coil in green mounds.

The store has filled the needs of Ferndale customers for half a century -- or as customer John M. Wayson Sr., 60, puts it, "They been here many and many a year."

Law, 48, takes his mechanical menagerie seriously. "We sell everything loose, if possible," he says. "It's not your packaged goods store, like Hechinger's. We personally communicate with everybody who comes in here."

People keep coming, more for the help they get than the parts they take home in brown paper bags, says Scott Hodgkins, brother of Law's son-in-law and a store worker.

"They need an answer more than a product, what to get or how to do something," he says. "I've been working here on and off for 16 years, and George's strongest suit is knowledge. It keeps him floating."

David Asbury, 48, has patronized the store for most of his life. "They got stuff you can't find anyplace else, and they'll help you find stuff," he says, picking up a special type of storm-door latch Law helped him order.

People also come for the homey feeling, speculates Law, who knows the names of most of his customers. Katherine Palmer, who helps run the cash register, also envelops people with "hons" and "babes," worrying over patron's needs like a mother hen.

"You poor thing," she says to one man on crutches. "I hope you get feelin' better with your foot and all." She hands the big construction worker his merchandise. "There you go, babe."

Law happened into the business the way many people find their careers, or are thrust into them, he says -- mostly by accident. "My father was ready to retire, and he was in not so good health. It was a matter of helping him more than anything else," he says.

The graying proprietor considers himself lucky that he had a knack for the business, a mind that could retain information about endless "teeny parts and hardware."

And he has a feel for the way the place should be: comfortable to shop in, unpretentious. Visitors walk into a scene out of somebody's garage: shelves of paint cans, a trash bin jammed with discarded sodas. The hodgepodge of hardware smells faintly musty, and bare wood floors do little to keep out the cold, but that doesn't deter customers.

"These are working people who come into this store," says Law. "We don't need it fancy."

Some folks Law knows from his class at Glen Burnie High. Some have been coming for the 52 years of the store's existence, as ownership changed hands from Law's father George and his Uncle Andy, through his fraternal twin brother John, then to Law and his 18-year-old son Andy.

To Law, the real story of the business is his attempt to keep it all in the family.

He's been a locksmith; he's sold fasteners in a back room -- anything to keep the business going. His four children, as well as three foster children, have all worked in the store, one for nearly 20 years.

"I've done a lot of things just to be here," he says.

Now, although business is so brisk there's barely a pause from morning till night, Law worries a little. He fears the revitalization of Ferndale will hurt the store.

"It'll be a little fancier community, but the traffic's gonna be a nightmare. And the people who come in on light rail, they aren't going to be the sort who come in with a broken screen door under their arm."

But for now, people crowd around, asking Law questions or showing him parts they can't figure out. Saturdays, "it's even more like an anthill.

It's all we can do to keep up, even with five workers," Law says.

Bob Rivers of Millersville waited patiently in line one afternoon last week for plumbing supplies he needed to fix up an old house.

"The things I can't find anywhere else, they have them," he said.

"They're like an institution. They're amazing."

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