Progress typically implies a positive, that something is advancing, improving, such as in retail. And whether good or bad, the big-box stores are certainly witness to that.
There’s more selection, more space to shop, weekly sales. But the flip side is that mom-and-pop stores catering to the same customers were undone by such progress.
But whether you like them or not, can you walk into any big-box hardware store and play an old upright piano, be greeted by two cats, a three-legged boy named Stumpy or his sister, Stella, or have a treasured old lamp rewired? Probably not.
You can, however, tickle the ivories, stroke the kitties and have that precious lamp salvaged at West Hill Hardware, Akron’s oldest hardware institution established in 1930.
“We get some people who are pretty proficient playing that,” said Richard Tschantz, nodding toward the upright piano.
It was a sunny yet chilly December morning, and sunlight flooded the windows of the store, founded by Tschantz’s grandfather, Charles Tschantz. A wheel whines in the background as a key was being cut for a customer.
Tschantz has worked at the store since 1976 and began managing West Hill Hardware in the late 1980s taking over for his father and uncle, Paul and Charles Tschantz. He employs some part-timers and a full-time worker.
Obviously much has changed in the hardware business during the 82 years since West Hill Hardware opened. But part of the charm here is that some items on the shelves date back many years, giving customers a blended shopping experience of old and new that they would not have with the store’s larger competitors.
“We also have a lot of old inventory,” Tschantz said. “We’re not like famous marketers of sale items. Old merchandise just sits here.”
He’s right. There a spatula for 25 cents in an orange that’s reminiscent of the Brady Bunch kitchen.
And Tschantz offers many walk-in services for things that many would typically replace outright.
“Oh absolutely, we have a loyal client base, and we do a lot of plumbing supplies, tons of keys, fasteners, nuts and bolts,” said Tschantz. “We’ll rebuild a valve stem for a leaky faucet, do screen repair. People may bring in a pot or pan and need a hole drilled in it for a new handle or something. There’s a lot of small services.”
The smell of worn linoleum in red and black squares wafts through part of the hardware store, where at one time “West Market Lunch” stood. When Tschantz’s granddad opened West Hill Hardware, the building comprised two businesses, one of which was the restaurant.
Granddad Tschantz owned then sold two other hardware stores, one on Copley Road another at Five Points, before opening his West Hill store.
Before hardware, the enterprising businessman operated a small fleet of buses and worked with his family’s dairy business. A wonderful old photo shows granddad sitting in what appears to be a Model T Ford milk wagon on High Street.
“Back in those days, every neighborhood had a hardware store, like drug stores, and you shopped in your community,” Tschantz said. “You could still buy a single nail here if you want.”
Some unique store items were donated, Tschantz said, while others were literally pulled off a curb or purchased at a salvage bid.
A recent find were two pedestal sinks Tschantz bought from the former Von and Crescent apartment buildings that were demolished next to the Highland Square Library.
“These [sinks] are actually glazed crockery, not porcelain per se,” said Tschantz. “We’ll get items that are hard to find for people.”
Once popular inventory is no longer sold, such as pots and pans, or sold far less, like housewares (brooms, brushes, cleaning supplies) and paint. But pricing is competitive, contrary to what some may think.
“We did a price comparison of big-box and other hardware stores, and we’re easily fair, the same, or in some cases, cheaper,” Tschantz said. “Sure the bigger stores have big piles of special deals, so if you buy those it’s a really great price. But if you go back in the aisles and buy a little knick-knack that’s hanging on a pegboard, not advertised, it’s going to be a high price.”
So if a customer needs something new or nostalgic, like a carousel slide projector, a replacement, one of something without having to buy a bag…
“Bring it on,” Tschantz said.
West Hill Hardware is located at 335 W. Market. Hours: Monday – Friday, 9-5, and Saturday, 9-4. Call 330-376-6927.