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Family Hardware Store Holds Out Against Bigger Competition

  • Deborah Block

In the first of our three part series on the survival of small businesses in the U.S., we visit a hardware store that’s been around for more than 100 years.

FALLS CHURCH, Virginia - Because of the popularity of large home improvement stores in the United States, the neighborhood hardware store may one day be just a memory. But one family-owned hardware store near Washington is defying the odds and business is better than ever.

Welcome to Browns Hardware in Falls Church, Virginia, where you can find a wide variety of hardware and other items. Browns brings back memories for customer Dennis Kraft. "The thing that reminds me of the hardware stores when I was in as a kid is that the shelves are stacked to the ceiling,” he said.

Hugh Brown has owned the store for more than 50 years.

Everyone calls him Mr. Brown, even John Taylor, the store manager for 15 years. “He's a great guy to work for. It's almost like working with your dad,” Taylor stated.

At 83, Brown is the third generation to run this family business. It was founded by his grandfather in the late 1800s, then handed down to Mr. Brown's father.

The current store, built in the 1950s, has kept these old gumball machines. And Brown still uses his grandfather's safe.

He thinks the store has been successful because the customers come first. “We try to take care of them when they come in. Try to have the merchandise that they want,” explained Brown.

Bobbi Beck has been coming in for 30 years to buy items for her jewelry business called “Hard Wear.” “The people who work here are like family to me,” she said.

Taylor says customers keep coming back because they trust Browns. “They know we won't sell them something that they don't need. Some people will come in and talk to us for 20 and 30 minutes after a sale if we're not busy," he said. "We have a good time.”

Despite its success, this neighborhood landmark could disappear. Competition from large, national home improvement warehouses, known as big box stores, is driving many small hardware stores out of business. Browns' customers say they don't want that to happen here.

Many big box stores also don't provide services like fixing screens. And instead of having to buy a box of nails at the big box stores, Brown sells individual nails that are weighed on a scale made in 1912. “They just want a few, and they love to come back here, and pick out what they want,” he added.

The store also carries soap that Brown remembers from his youth. “There's no perfume in it or anything. It's just a heavy laundry soap,” he explained.

Taylor says some people come in just to look around, and find unusual items like this owl that scares birds out of gardens.

With no family of his own, Brown plans to pass the store on to Taylor. When that happens, a new family tradition may begin. “My son works here. He's been working here since he was in high school,” said Taylor.

This wear and tear shows just how many customers have passed through Browns' doors over the past half century. John Taylor hopes, despite the new competition, they will continue to come.