Hardware store and town center Business: Union Bridge's family-owned shop attracts residents interested in more than supplies.

August 18, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

When Cheryl Nokes worried about whether she would make it through nursing school, she went to Union Bridge Hardware Co. next door to her home to recharge her confidence.

When Town Councilwoman Karen L. Kotarski returned from a trip to Iceland, she went to the hardware store to share vacation stories.

When Margaret "Rosie" Rinehart picks flowers from her garden on Farquhar Street, she always takes a bouquet to Thomas R. and Irene Winebrener at their store.

For nearly half a century, the store in this town of 1,000 has been a symbol of Carroll County's rural lifestyle -- a place where folks drop in as much for conversation as for cans of paint, lag bolts or lengths of pipe. It has endured even as large chain stores have overrun mom-and-pop businesses in many communities.

At 11 N. Main St., customers catch up on news of family and friends or work their way through personal crises, sure to find a nonjudgmental listener in Irene Winebrener.

They cross the wooden floors, worn to gray by years of footsteps, to sit on a stool by the counter for a quick chat or sink into the easy chair for longer conversations.

Farmers, whose mouths are usually dry from working in the fields, love the free lollipops Irene began stocking several years ago after children asked for them. The farmers remind Irene when their favorites, strawberry and cherry, get low.

"These people are amazing," said Nokes, a geriatric nurse who "adopted" the Winebreners as family after she moved to the northwest Carroll community in 1990. She now lives in New Windsor, but returns to visit.

"Pop [Thomas Winebrener] is such a fountain of knowledge, and they complement each other, and the neatest part of all is that they still like each other," Nokes said.

The Winebreners have owned the business for 46 years, but Union Bridge Hardware Co. has been operating for 98 years. It's bucking a trend.

Family-owned hardware stores are increasingly being squeezed out by giants such as Home Depot and Lowe's. The U.S. Department of Commerce and National Home Center News, an industry publication, reported last year that the number of hardware stores in the United States dropped from 25,000 in 1985 to 18,400 a decade later.

The Winebreners haven't made a decision about the fate of their hardware store, but they have begun to think about the future.

Tom is 82 and Irene is 79. She wants to retire. He's not ready, despite knee replacement surgery two years ago that made walking difficult.

Irene treasures the chances to drive into the nearby mountains or spend time at their cottage on the Chesapeake Bay. Tom said the getaways wouldn't be as enjoyable if they didn't have something to get away from.

"You always get more pleasure out of something you can't do all the time, that you have to sneak off and do," he said.

Sometimes it seems "the only way we're going to leave here is when the dear Lord takes us," Irene said.

However the Winebreners leave, the store will become the responsibility of their only son, 58-year-old Thomas W. Winebrener. Thomas pinch-hits in the store, but he is in business full time as the owner of two Frederick County horse farms.

The elder Winebrener found his career in the early 1930s. He was offered a job unloading drain tile at Stebbins Anderson Co. Inc. in Fullerton, Baltimore County, and began working for the hardware store part time until he graduated from high school in 1933. He and Irene were married in 1939, and she began to learn the hardware business by following him through Stebbins Anderson pointing to items and asking, "Tom, what's that used for?"

When World War II broke out, Tom was drafted into the Army. Irene, formerly a medical historian at Johns Hopkins Hospital, took his place at Stebbins Anderson. In 1945, he returned from the war and resumed his place behind the hardware store counter.

In 1952, an acquaintance, a Union Bridge businessman, told the Winebreners that the town hardware store was for sale. They bought it, moved into the apartment above the store and became part of the town.

Tom was elected to the Town Council in the 1950s and retired from that panel 12 years ago. His council assignment was to oversee operation of the sewage treatment plant, which meant he was also the emergency service technician. Irene made him change clothes in the basement when he returned from repairing a breakdown. He still serves as the town zoning administrator.

"Anything you need fixed, bring them in a piece and they'll tell you how to fix it," said customer Kathleen D. Kreimer, a Town Council member.

Local residents find the hardware store convenient.

"I get tired of running to Westminster [to Lowe's hardware store]," said customer Steve Hockenberry, a farm worker. "I just need little odd-and-end things. It's quicker to go five minutes than 25 minutes, and nine out of 10 times they have it."

Tom's expertise came into play one day last week when a customer came in for a masonry bit.

"Now, are you going to drill many holes?" Tom asks. The question leads to a discussion of the project and a little advice from the hardware store owner: "Keep it cutting. Don't let the pressure off. If it spins without cutting, it'll wear the bit off."

The customer is ready to pay for the bit, but another thought occurs to Winebrener: Does the man have the right lag bolt?

After more conversation and a quick lesson in how to measure for the bolt, the customer leaves with the items he needs to start his project. He won't have to run back to the store to get the right bolt midway through the job.

Irene knows the answers, too, but the couple find that some customers can't accept the idea that a woman could understand lag bolts.

"She'll tell them, and they'll look at me and say, 'Is that right?' " Tom said.

"And you better say 'yes,' " she said with a laugh.

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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