Hemlock Hardware: If they had a hammer ...
Published 1:03 am, Friday, April 2, 2010
In 1979, Sony introduced a little machine that would change the world. It was called the Walkman and it cost $200, an exorbitant sum considering the average weekly wage was a little over $300. But the gadget was a hit and soon, little headphones were seen everywhere. Folks boogied in place while on line for the blockbuster sci-fi flick, Alien. And they tapped their toes while they pumped gas into their cars for 86 cents a gallon. Like it or not, we had entered the digital age.
Also in 1979, a gentleman named Fred Pesavento bought Hemlock Hardware on Black Rock Turnpike near a stand of -- you guessed it -- Hemlocks. Eventually, fate stepped in. Hemlock's lot was sold to Marsillio's Appliances and at almost the same time, August Brothers Hardware in Fairfield town center came up for sale. In 1985, Fred made the move.
Fred's plan was ambitious but not as ambitious as the empire builder, Home Depot. It had opened its first store in 1979 in Georgia. And though its growth rate would be phenomenal, it wouldn't target Fairfield for years. So, in 1985, Hemlock Hardware's little empire safely stretched all the way to Westport.
Scott Pesavento, Fred's son, is a trim 35-year-old with close-cropped hair and a welcoming smile. As the third generation of a very close-knit family, the hardware business was in Scott's DNA from the beginning. When he was 12, his grandfather "Red," would pick him up at school and bring him to work in the store.
"My grandfather told me to just give it a shot," says Scott, "I never bucked against it. I knew this was my future, my legacy."
Hemlock Hardware is not Home Depot. At Hemlock, if you want a nail, you walk over to the bins of loose nails, scoop some onto the old-fashioned spring scale and pay by the pound. If you want a nail from Home Depot, you put on your hiking boots, say goodbye to your family, make sure you're well hydrated, venture inside and begin asking passers by if they know the latitude and longitude of nails. Hemlock is the little hardware store that lives sweetly in our collective memory. It's where you go for a "doo-dad."
Oddly, considering the staggering amount of widgets and watchamacallits in stock, there isn't a computer in sight. This is the result of management's stalwart resistance to endless pressure from outside vendors to computerize. Scott says, "They try every year to get us to switch over and it's so expensive. Look, I know my inventory. I can tell you exactly how many of everything we've got. Next year when they call, I'm going to tell them I'm in hardware not software."
Asked about oddball incidents over the years, Scott recalls, "There was this guy who owned an island somewhere out in Long Island Sound. He came in and bought just about one of everything. The sale was around $10,000." Back then, a standard black Weber charcoal grill could be had for $15 bucks. Today it's possible to spend $5,000 on a gas grill, but there are many back-yard chefs who contend that the little charcoal grill-that-could makes a tastier burger than the Super Blaster 3000 with surfaces coated in genuine unobtainium.
You don't run a hardware business for more than 25 years without attracting some memorable customers.
"There's this lady" says Scott, "who comes in to buy wax polish. You know the little collars made of metal at the very bottom of the feet on chairs? She likes to polish them. I think she polishes her porcelain lamps too."
Then there are the multitudes who somehow forget that their gas mowers require gas to run. They regularly burn $2 worth of gas in their car to discover they need 25 cents worth of gas for their mowers.
But at the end of the day, Scott knows his business relies on building long relationships with loyal customers.
"People don't like change," he says. "They want to walk over to the drawer where their widget is and find it there. I get in trouble if I start moving items around. I don't like change either. My grandmother, Anna, makes the best meatballs and gravy in the world. When I go out to eat at a restaurant, I won't order anybody else's sauce. That's just the way it is."
Of the hundreds, maybe thousands of regular customers at Hemlock, two deserve mention from Scott. "Richard Blum was with us right from the beginning. He still owns every piece of power equipment we ever sold him. And we still try to service all the items, even though we don't sell many of them anymore. And Candy Raveis, what can I say, she made my sixth grade corsage for me."
Scott's eyes soften when he talks about how he considers all his customers members of an extended family, and how proud he is every day that they depend on him. And of Fred and the little hardware store named after a stand of trees near Black Rock Turnpike.
This article is part of a series on long-standing Fairfield businesses. To submit story ideas, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 203-255-4561, ext. 111.