Sunday, July 06, 2008
This is an article done by my cousin Cheryl about her mother and my Aunt and the old hardware store that she has worked at for many many years...She is 84 years old and still works about 20-30 hours a week, which makes me feel like such a wussy when I complained that I can't work 30 hours a week as I'm too old and decrepit(64 against her 84)...See her new red Mustang?...She has a gun in it so in case someone is thinking about jacking her car, think twice about it...'cause she'll shot you...
When a "big box" hardware and home improvement store opened in northern Houston, only three and a half miles from Martin Hardware, local residents shook their heads and forecast the old store's closure. After all, how could a 67-year-old hardware in an old converted barn compete in pricing and advertising against such a Goliath?
Northern Houston is an elderly and established part of town with a slower pace of life, a large minority population, and lots of elbow room. Residential neighborhoods were built in the 1940s and 1950s, when all anybody ever needed was one bathroom and a one-car garage or carport protecting part of the driveway from falling pecans. Fences are chain-link, rose bushes were planted so long ago their boles are as thick as a man's wrist, and family members perform many of their own repairs and maintenance. It's a neighborhood with every reason to stretch every dollar, which is why many old-timers wondered if Martin Hardware could compete.
Besides, the store's founder, Cecil Martin, had recently passed on, and after managing her husband's legacy herself for several years, his widow sold it and retired. Some of the long-time employees decided to follow her example, and it seemed everything in the old store was changing or ending, which was sad.
Mr. Johnson and Mama Beeler.
Alberto Franco wanted his photo on the Internet, so here it is.
The crowded parking lot, showing some of the items for sale and a customer's car parked behind Mama's SEXY new Pony.
But something funny happened on the way to the pity party.
Martin Hardware defied the gloomy forecasts. On the Thursday before the Fourth of July, 2008, the parking lot was packed. One customer, recognizing an employee's car, took the liberty of parking behind it.
"Why am I shopping here instead of there?" demanded Mr. Terrence Johnson as he thumped a handful of PVC connectors and piping on the counter beside the cash register. "I did shop there, and as soon as I'm finished here, I'm going back there and return everything I bought."
He was in my face now, not threatening but venting, and around us heads nodded and smiles spread. Behind the counter, Mrs. Leola Beeler, 84, tapped keys on the old-fashioned paper-fed calculator to determine Texas' 8.25% sales tax, then tore off the curl of paper and stamped it with the store's name to serve as a receipt. The cash register with the little round buttons and swing handle finally died two years ago, but even its replacement dated from the days when humans were responsible for getting the figures right. Mrs. Beeler's husband worked at Martin Hardware for thirty years. When he died in 1979, she stepped into his shoes and sold plumbing supplies, even assembling parts for confused do-it-yourself homeowners, before settling behind the counter and womaning the cash register.
"They don't have nobody there to help you," Mr. Johnson continued. "And if they do, they don't know nothing. I go there and get all the wrong stuff, then I come here and find out about it. So I'm going back there."
Mama, as she's widely known, interrupted us here. (She's my mother, so she's allowed.) She told him the total and, while he dug through his wallet, she dropped the smaller items into a plastic bag, one of the most modern items in the store except for the Bluetooth on her ear and her sexy red 2008 Mustang parked out front. She's smiling, too.
"They got people only worked there for six months." Mr. Johnson handed over his money, including the three pennies, without missing a beat in his ventilation, then slid his wallet back into his plaid pants. "You can't learn this stuff in six months. If I'd come here first, I'd be done by now. I've been working on this since seven this morning. And when you've got a hot water problem, you don't want that."
Mama and I behind the old counter. Mr. Terrence Johnson, on the far right, tucks a section of hot water piping beneath his arm.
The old part of the store. Note the metal sheeting on the floor and the cramped walkway.
Jaime Franco between the paint brushes and the insecticides. You really can find anything there, usually all in the same aisle.
Narrow aisles packed with goods purchased at clearance auctions were part of the Martin family's legacy. The tactic stocked shelves and saved money for the owners and their customers, especially during the recession in the early 1980s. But the new owners, members of the Franco family, have a different vision for the store. Counters are being rearranged for more light, more room, better organization. Dark and cramped storage areas to one side of the main sales floor have been opened up for better access and a roomier feel, and bins for plumbing joints now line the far wall. Efrain Franco, 14 years old, sits near the always-open front door selling cold sodas and chips for fifty cents each and Gatorade for a dollar. There's a smile on his face, too.
"And he sells a lot," said Mama. She only works part time now and usually sits behind the counter to watch the register, her bent and arthritic fingers nevertheless nimble on the adding-machine keys. But sometimes, while someone else serves as guard, she still ventures onto the sales floor to assemble plumbing and pipes for her favorite customers, who always reward her with a hug.
"Everybody knows this store is here," said another customer who preferred not to become famous on the Internet. "We come here because we know this store and these people, and they know us. Why go all the way over there? That ain't worth it."
Along the back wall, nails are still sold by the pound and the scale hangs from the ceiling. A hand-drawn sign states that the minimum sale of screws is thirty-five cents. The original wooden floor has been repaired in spots with metal sheeting, but cracks remain that swallow dropped coins on a regular basis. Out front, the walkway is lined with recycled home necessities ranging from attic stairs to the kitchen sink and the bathroom throne, with rolls of hardware cloth and buckets of grout between them.
This was the old storage area, now widened and brightened. The bins along the far wall contain plumbing components.
Martin Hardware's new look.
Behind the counter. Can you see the roll of paper on the old adding machine?
What they promise, they deliver.
Jaime Franco, Efrain's father, handed two freshly-cut keys to another client, who pulled out a fat roll of bills and waited for the total. "A hundred dollars," said Mr. Franco, a smile tugging his cheeks. When brown eyes cut his way, he smiled wider and corrected his total.
Another long-time employee, Bobby, hurried about the store waiting on customers and helping them find what they needed. He was never still, as the sweat dripping from his face testified. "Don't take my picture," he begged me, so I didn't. But I thought such hard work justified a mention nevertheless, especially as he never quit smiling despite the sweat.
That's customer service in the real world. That's how a 67-year-old mom-and-pop shop in an elderly neighborhood is thriving despite the big bad box store.
Efrain Franco's successful summer job.
Humble, Texas (the ultimate oxymoron)