Crozet Hardware: Anchor of The Square

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Hardware pros Jeff Birckhead, Jean Seal, Billy Staples and Rick Ruscher.
Hardware pros Jeff Birckhead, Jean Seal, Billy Staples and Rick Ruscher.

Crozet Hardware, the paragon of its old-fashioned type, had its busiest day ever the day the second big snow storm of the winter was predicted. They had snow shovels in stock and they assembled and sold 225 as fast as they could secure the handles. People were waiting at the door for the store to open at 7 a.m.

In the 27 years since he has owned it, Rick Ruscher couldn’t remember an occasion as pressured and hectic. Neither could Jeff Birckhead, who has been alongside him the whole time. Jean Seal, with eight years in, and Billy Staples, also eight years, complete the staff.

Everybody wears a Crozet Hardware logo sweatshirt with the illustration of the storefront inside a pair of circles. On Thursday they all wear burgundy. It might have something to do with Virginia Tech, but Rick, as a long-time usher at Virginia sports events, doesn’t want to talk about it. He works basketball (he has often been seen on TV when the camera is looking under the basket) as well as soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey games, and concerts like Metallica and Phish.

The store was first opened by Norman Gillum in 1949. He started out in a building now demolished that stood between The Blue Goose and Cocina del Sol. Then he moved where the store is now. Then he moved to the former Crozet Theater, another razed building where the steps to Mountainside Senior Living now ascend. Then he moved back to where the store has since settled in.

Crozet Hardware on The Square.
Crozet Hardware on The Square.

Ruscher bought the store in 1984, on the day after Christmas, he recalled. His dad had once told Gillum that if he wanted to sell to let him know, because he would be interested. In ’84 Gillum decided he wanted to sell. Rick, at the time, had been working in a home center in Richmond for a couple of years. The family bought the store and gradually Rick bought all the others out. Gillum stayed on in the store for five years, working for Rick and teaching him the business. Though he had lived on St. George Avenue for decades, he retired to Culpeper and died in 1994.

Historical photos of the store and snapshots of the staff through the years are on display on the doorjamb between the main area and the plumbing supply section. There was a time when there were three men in the store. Dwayne Baber left and eventually opened Piedmont Store in White Hall. After that Ruscher and Birckhead ran the store by themselves for many years. “We were in here 11 hours a day,” Jeff said. Besides that, their home phone numbers are on the door in case you have an after-hours emergency. But now at least they have schedule flexibility during normal hours, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, 4 p.m. on Saturdays. They close only on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The store that they know so well has about 10,000 items in it. “Things people actually need,” pointed out Jean Seal. The recent movers have been snow-related and a lot of bird seed has gone out the door. In other times of the year, lawn and garden supplies, mulch, seed and fertilizer can dominate trade. Plumbing supplies are always in demand. Spray paint is popular. They have some items, such as pink light bulbs, that are stocked at the instigation of a particular customer.

“We get calls for lumber, especially plywood and studs,” Ruscher noted. But he hasn’t the space to store anything like that. “We make a lot of keys, between 4,000 and 5,000 a year.”

There’s a candy rack strategically flanking the counter by the till. The candy rack got started because Juicy Fruit chewing gum was supposed to be a mole killer. “It supposedly made the moles constipated, Ruscher explained. “But it doesn’t work.” But there was the gum display. “One customer wanted only Necco wafers that are chocolate.” Chuckles are stocked especially for Jerry Doyle and Paul Seal. First thing you know you’ve got a pretty good selection of candy staring the customer in the face.

Rick goes through two or three diet Mountain Dews every day along with packs of Nabs. He said he has been in that groove for about 15 years. He doesn’t drink coffee but he likes caffeine.

Above the front display window is a TV set, visible from behind the counter, that gets turned on at lunch time to catch up on the news and when U.Va. games are broadcast. The radio in the store is set to 102.3. “That’s Rick’s taste,” explained Jeff. Mostly they brown bag for lunch, but sometimes they get carry-out from nearby restaurants.

“We always say it takes three trips to the store to do a plumbing project,” Rick observed. The others take that for proverbially true. Several of the early sales that day were plumbing components. On an average day at least 75 customers will come in. On Saturdays, maybe 300. Saturdays in spring when folks try to get their gardens in are typically the busiest,  Ruscher said. “People aren’t vegetable gardening as much. Older people used to buy seed by the pound.”

Crozet Hardware truck collection.
Crozet Hardware truck collection.

“I order the old-fashioned way. I walk the store and write down what we’re short on. We don’t do a computer inventory. We just count.” Every item has a price on it. Ruscher orders through about 100 vendors, but most things are supplied through Orgill, a national hardware wholesaler. An order goes out once a week. Wetsels’ in Harrisonburg is an another important supplier. Both Rick and Jeff have encyclopedic knowledge of hardware. About three years ago they conceded to the digital age and installed a computer behind the desk that lets them check suppliers’ websites for stock availability.

Spare items are stored on the second floor. In the 1920s that space served as a town hall and auditorium. There was once a skating rink there and later it was partitioned into an apartment. There is a bathroom up there for the staff. Cole Sandridge’s family has owned the building since his father bought it in 1934.

“On the day after Christmas we start counting for the annual inventory. Then we close on New Year’s Eve and we all finish the count.”

One big change in recent years is the growth in credit card usage. “It hasn’t been that long, 10 years ago,” Ruscher said, “when we did one credit card in a day. Now we do more in one day than we did in six months in the old days. People want to use a credit card for a 12-cent screw.” The average transaction in the store is in the $20 range. At 15 cents to 19 cents in fees per transaction, even two to three percent for an American Express-mediated sale, the difference between a cash sale and a credit one gets to be meaningful after a while. In the old days people commonly used cash for hardware and carried a little change. He said he’s had some problem with shoplifting “but not too much.” He has a security system and he has never been broken into.

The Crozet Hardware parrot.
The Crozet Hardware parrot.

Ruscher does all the bookkeeping, payroll and billing. He works in his rear office, which has a raised floor and windows into the aisles (mostly blocked by his collection of 50 or so “truck banks,” die-cast models of pickups sporting hardware logos that are also meant to be piggy banks). Ruscher is kept company by his 10-year-old parrot, an African Gray, who once, few years ago, escaped the store, much to Ruscher’s alarm. It flew around the corner past Parkway Pharmacy and eventually was found, unsure of itself, in a yard off Crozet Avenue. Now Ruscher keeps the bird’s flight feathers clipped. “I had always wanted a parrot,” he admitted. “It seemed like a good idea. But I didn’t understand how much work is involved in cleaning up after her. A lot of kids like to look at her. She says ‘Crozet Hardware’ when the phone rings. She can say ‘Hi, guys!’ She’s not a big talker.” She goes home with him at night.

Outside the office is a memorabilia board with a photo of the former town Christmas tree on The Square, a hemlock that met its demise in 2005, news clippings from The Hook showing Jean Seal during the snow storm, an old imprinted paint stick and a similar yard stick, a 1962 Crozet Hardware coupon for 10 percent off DuPont paint, an invitation to the 1968 Grand Opening of the store and a store-logo-embossed key ring.

Since the Mudhouse opened he’s had a problem with malingering cars that stay parked in front of his door for hours. Before, the spots changed hands often and the customer who needed some heavy bags carried out—these days it’s wild birdseed, of which they sell about 50,000 pounds a year—was perhaps parked right by the door, or likely nearby. Now they carry loads some distance.

So he put out reserved parking signs on four spots across his front and claims them during store hours. It was strange to him to do it, though he felt it was necessary, because he had never had encountered this situation. The Square has never had congested parking before.

One of his customers reprimanded him for it and said the signs “are not Crozet-friendly.”

That stung a little. When has it ever happened that Crozet Hardware was not friendly?

In fact the lady who said it was parked in one of the spots.

“I hate doing it,” said Ruscher, “but I have to protect my customers and the business. We have elderly customers.”

“We have a lot of people come in who say they love the store and they like an old-fashioned hardware. We have stuff that most people don’t carry and we know what people are talking about when they come in needing something. We help them.”

Some of Crozet Hardware’s seed selection.
Some of Crozet Hardware’s seed selection.

The store will cut glass to suit and sells rope and wire by the foot. They will repair kerosene heaters and lamps, attach new handles to tools. They have a sharpening service (items out on Tuesdays, back the next week) that sharpens everything but electric clippers and reel mowers. They carry stove pipe.

“We are the oldest surviving business in Crozet”—a claim that might be challenged only by the Modern Barber Shop. “Our plan is to stay the same,” said Ruscher.

1 COMMENT

  1. Back in the 50s and 60s when I was a kid growing up in Crozet, I remember Mr Gilliam and Crozet Hardware very well. My family (Casey’s) bought ALL of their hardware needs and family garden supplies there. If I am remembering correctly they bought all of the farm and orchard supplies from Fruit Groweres Co-Op.
    I also remember Crozet Drug (owned by Bob Black who was also a Justice of the Peace and later a Mr Stanley). I remember when Red Front Market and 5 & 10 were owned by Jack and Nanny Wagner. Modern Barber was owned by the Mc Cauleys (can’t remember the father’s name but he cut my hair until his son Pete joined him in the shop). I remember when the building that now houses the Senior Condomimiums was a fruit cold storage was owned by Chesley Haden and the cold storage on 240E (became the home of Morton Pot Pies) was where locals stored their meat and vegetables. Next to Haden’s Cold Storage was Crozet Theater (owned or run by a Mr Smith) with movies all week (nights) and double features on Fri and Sat nights.
    There was a branch of People’s National Bank (later Virginia National Bank). There were 2 other grocery stores on Main St (E. L. Grasty and Tomlin and Kent which became Crozet Superette owned by Moses Sandridge) Trimble’s Dry Cleaners and alot of other businesses. There were 3 doctors (MDs) whose names are very familiar to me.
    Crozet has changed so much over the years and I HATE saying this but I feel not always for the better. I HATE seeing the old farms and orchards turned into developments. I remember when Peaches and Apples were king and how Fruit Growers Express lined up rail cars during the picking seasons to transport the fruit nationwide. C&O Railroad (before Chessie and Amtrac) had many passenger trains that stopped in Crozet everyday to pickup and discharge passengers.

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