When you talk with Kenan Williams, who owns and runs Hope’s LaGrone Williams Hardware with his wife Peggy, you quickly learn his store is a window into what’s going on, not only in the local economy but that of the world as well.
As he sees things now, conditions are running roughly parallel to what they were 40 years ago. “In some ways, it’s a replay of the late 1970s. Yeah. Because you’ve got inflation where [prices are] changing daily.” Yet, unlike the 1970s, another factor is helping to drive demand for hardware items.
“The good thing is, and this has been true for the last three years, is our manufacturing in town never shut down,” Williams said, adding that work even continued here at plants during the height of the pandemic while other plants were shut down. “That was good for the town, and it saved our economy.”
Because of this, Williams said, workers still had what used to be discretionary income, but a lot of that has been taken up paying for necessities now that inflation has gone up. As it pertains to spending on hardware, spending is still occurring on parts to fix things, but not on the bigger ticket items.
But when it comes to buying and ordering parts, consumers since the pandemic started are encountering a new problem. “The problem is so many specific parts are harder and harder to come by,” Williams said. “We spend a lot of our time looking. So yeah, trying to replace it. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s you give up. Yeah, you’re not going to replace it.”
Williams said he is at an advantage on other hardware stores when it comes to ordering parts because of a choice made before 1989 when he began running the store, but this doesn’t mean acquiring parts by ordering them is always easy. “I have spent most of my time researching. A lot of businesses have only one supplier. Yes, that’s a business decision that many people make. But in our 60 years of business, we have never done that. And so we try to keep all our options open so if this supplier’s out, check this other supplier. And that takes time. That’s important if we’re going to be able to supply things for the community. That’s just what we try to do.”
Asked whether he saw from his customers evidence of the difficulty with hiring contractors to do construction and home repair work, Williams said he did and that it pointed to an opportunity for young people to pursue what would be an increasingly lucrative and stable line of work.
“They need to think instead of getting a college degree that may or may not be marketable, if they have any use of their hands, they should work in the crafts. Whether it’s plumbing, electrical. This is the Mike Rowe pitch and—what does he call it?–Dirty Jobs or whatever it is. But they pay well. You earn it. Everybody will gripe, ‘Oh, so and so charged me this much money to go out there and do what he did for that price?’ But they earn their money.”
These are jobs that are increasingly open to women, as well. As for LaGrone Williams Hardware, women have and continue to contribute to its long tenure in Hope (the store has existed since 1961). This started in the store’s very beginning, Williams said. “The day the door opened, my mother worked with my father in this business. From 1972, Peggy has worked in this business.”
The experience of working at LaGrone Williams in a way resembles playing Jeopardy!, with customers frequently coming in with difficult questions about whether the store stocks a particularly obscure, even archaic, part. At times, it’s like a Video Daily Double, as it was when a customer raised what appeared to be a black rubber ring for one-and-a-half-year employee Callista Moses, who immediately knew where to find a replacement for it and motioned for the customer to follow her to the right aisle.
“There’s some things anybody wouldn’t know. But they learned, and these young ladies we’ve had the last couple of years, and Callista today–if you’re sharp and retain, you learn quick,” Williams said.
No doubt, the expertise available to customers at the asking keeps them coming, but also the atmosphere of the store, which, with its displays of impeccably preserved animals along the tops of walls and its early-60s era shelving, creates an impression of having stepped into a time closer to childhood than what would be seen in a big box store, with its hangar-like interior, omnipresent blue-screens and continual checkout counter beeping. A store like LaGrone Williams Hardware comes through as a bit of a refuge.
“Oh yeah,” said Williams when I mentioned his store’s nostalgic appeal. “We have people who visit town. They might get the antique stores and the guys come over here and bring their wives in, and they both might spend an hour just wandering around and say ‘I’ve never seen a hardware store like this in 50 years.’”
This may be another reason why so many continue to be drawn to the store, (and sometimes can’t resist the urge to document the experience) and will continue to be. LaGrone Williams Hardware is at 120 South Elm in downtown Hope and its hours are 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, with Saturday hours from 7:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.