Mount Airy business poised for change Tradition: People's Lumber Co. is closing after more than a century, but the family behind the enterprise will soon open an antiques mall in its place.

March 09, 1997|By Nora Catherine Koch | Nora Catherine Koch,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

After more than a century, People's Lumber Co., the business that literally paved the first road in Mount Airy, is closing its doors.

Originally known as the Moxley Straw Co. when H. B. Moxley opened in 1889, the family-owned business has changed frequently over the years, becoming a hardware and lumber store. Now, the business is being converted to an antiques mall.

In 1916, Ira Watkins, Moxley's nephew, bought the business with help from his father, and the hardware store was known as Thomas E. Watkins and Sons.

In the early 1930s, business was booming, and the Watkins family decided to incorporate by selling stock to family and friends. The new corporation was named People's Lumber & Supply Co. Inc.

The business was incorporated again in 1975 when Watkins sold the controlling interest to his nephew, R. Delaine Hobbs, who has worked at People's since he was 14. Watkins continued to come to the office to advise the business until his death at age 98.

Hobbs has been president of the company ever since. In recent years, he has operated the business along with his son, Scott. Opening the antiques business will mean semi-retirement for the elder Hobbs, and his son will take over as presiding officer of the corporation.

Hobbs hopes the hardware store will be able to close by the end of April, making room for his new venture.

"[We'll close] as soon as we get of rid of everything. It's slow," said Hobbs, 63. "We still have a couple hundred thousand items."

George Watkins of Woodbine has worked at People's since 1970, when he was 21. "I started out driving trucks and working in the yard; now I'm an officer in the corporation."

Watkins isn't sure what role he will play in the antiques mall, but he will remain with the company. He says that Hobbs has involved him in all decision-making from the beginning.

"It's going to be interesting [the antiques business], a lot different than the building industry. We got good management and good people working here, and they care about what's going on. That has a lot to do with whether you're going to be successful."

The new business, Shops of Yesteryear, will occupy the 10,000 square feet of the building with room for more than 70 dealers. The antiques mall has 47 committed dealers.

Self-storage units will also be available for rent in the old warehouses, operating under the name of PLS Inc.

After more than a century as a hardware store and lumberyard, the property needs a few renovations before it opens as an antiques mall, Hobbs said.

"We started converting our lumberyard a year ago with self-storage units," he said. "We're going to liven up the building, make it brighter with new lighting and new painting. Our architect is working on it now."

Hobbs hopes the antiques mall will be ready to open Memorial Day weekend, but "you never know for sure," he said.

Two years ago, People's Lumber reduced inventory, feeling pressure from larger hardware chains. Hobbs attributes the downfall of his business mainly to national chains that can offer customers lower prices.

"For many years, we were the primary source of building materials in the Mount Airy area. With the influx of mass development, they bring their suppliers with them," he added. "They don't buy locally. The independent, small, customer-oriented contractors are disappearing. They are the ones who bought from me."

Don L. Bell of New Market is one of those small contractors. He is the sole proprietor of Bell Home Improvements, a company that does drywall work. Bell's company has relied on People's Lumber since 1973. "Convenience was the number one thing, pricing secondly."

Although deciding to close the hardware store was relatively easy, choosing what to turn it into was tougher.

"We had to turn it into something. The big boxes [chain hardware stores] are running small independents out. We had no place to go but out," said Hobbs.

Hobbs hopes to attract customers with quality goods and a convenient location.

"We are between Washington and Westminster and Pennsylvania, so the Washington antique hunters will bypass us on their way to New Market. With the extensive advertising we're planning, we'll be able to draw a market. Antique lovers will go anywhere to find them," Hobbs said.

In addition to antiques, the mall will also offer hard-to-find reproduction hardware pieces, refinishing materials and have an on-site framing and matte shop.

As its line of work changes, PLS Inc. plans to continue the style of business that Hobbs' uncle used to build the company. "Quality, fairness and a personal touch in a pleasing atmosphere," said Hobbs.

"I'm just too excited over the change to be too heartbroken about the loss of one business," he said.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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