Family's hardware store rakes in local trade

Business surviving threat of big retailers

Family-owned hardware store rakes in locals

Annapolis

September 24, 2000|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Amid the trendy bars and restaurants, swanky boutiques and touristy shops of Annapolis' City Dock, there is a lone relic of days gone by, when locals outnumbered tourists on the street of storefronts that stretches from the State House to the water.

The store, now called Stevens Hardware, has served local needs under the ownership of three families since 1870, when Annapolitans would come in to buy 10 cents' worth of oil, 5 cents' worth of buckwheat or a 30-cent broom.

Owned by the Stevens family of Eastport since 1960, it has changed little over the decades and remains a place where customers can find all the nuts and bolts they need, as well as the odds and ends that help hold home life together.

"No matter how sophisticated the business world gets, there will always be a need for certain things," said 71-year-old Marjorie Stevens, the face behind the counter six days a week since she bought the store with her husband, George "Bud" Stevens, who died of cancer three years ago.

Stevens is aware of the challenges mom-and-pop stores such as hers face in a retail age dominated by national giants such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

She also laments the passing of a "functional" Main Street that served downtown families with drugstores and groceries.

Today, Stevens Hardware is one of the few stores there that cater mostly to residents.

"From the top at Church Circle to the foot of Main Street, you could buy anything you needed besides an automobile," Stevens said.

But "gradually through the years, [Main Street] has become just a little tourist gift shop."

Stevens moved onto the City Dock at a pivotal moment in the area's history: around the time Parole Plaza opened and began luring customers to the suburbs.

There were 18 vacant shops on Main Street when Bud Stevens quit his job at an appliance store to buy the hardware store owned by John Dawes, who was retiring.

"Business was going out of town, so it didn't seem like a good time," Marjorie Stevens said. "But my husband thought it was."

Though Bud Stevens at first planned to fill the store with what he knew best, appliances, Dawes gave him a piece of advice that Marjorie Stevens said saved the business from certain failure.

"Dawes told him, `Bud, I think you should keep the hardware,'" she said.

Bud Stevens still wanted to sell appliances, and he did so for about 10 years until competition from large stores such as Montgomery Ward and Sears made the business too difficult.

For the next two decades, the family held on through the transition of Main Street to a tourist center, even as several other businesses fled. The owners watched as national chains began to take over the retail world.

Tourists often tell Marjorie Stevens stories of hardware stores that have gone out of business in their hometowns, she said.

But the little Annapolis store has endured the rise and fall of Hechinger, and Stevens is confident it can hold on through the competitive pressure of Home Depot and similar stores.

Still, she has a hint of bitterness for the big national chains, which she said can sometimes sell certain items for less than she can buy them.

"They say they have everything, if you can find it," she said. "In the end, I think the big-box stores are going to eat each other."

Annapolis resident and customer Julie Caverly, 42, said it's the "feeling" of Stevens Hardware that keeps her coming back. "We like to support it because there used to be a lot of mom-and-pop stores down here; now it's all ubiquitous chain stores, mall stores you can find in every city that have no character," Caverly said.

Stevens "feels like an old-time hardware store. It doesn't have 40-foot ceilings and fluorescent lights. It's cozy."

Every year, the family gets offers to sell the prime real estate the business occupies, and every time it turns them down without a second thought, Stevens said.

She values the support the store gets from neighboring businesses and nearby residents and says the store's business "is so steady, it's shocking."

"This is a people store, a people business," she said. "People talk to you, tell you their needs and problems. I'm here because I want to be. It's fun."

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