New Owner, Same Friendly Service at Crozet Hardware

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Crozet Hardware’s Jeff Wood, Tim Richardson, Jeff Birckhead and Billy Staples. Photo: Mike Marshall.

After 41 years as an employee of Crozet Hardware, Jeff Birckhead now owns it. Long-time owner Rick Ruescher retired last month, after helping Birckhead learn the back-office paperwork that he’d taken care of himself during his 38 years as owner. 

Birckhead said he’d actually been working there when Ruescher bought it from the previous owner, Norman Gillum. “So, Rick inherited me,” he said. Birckhead was a junior in high school, working late afternoons and all day Saturday. 

He’d been offered the job without ever applying. “Money was tight for us at home, and Mr. Gillum asked my mother if it was okay to hire me.” Birckhead’s father had died a few years before, and Gillum knew the teenager because he’d stop in the store now and then for fishing supplies. 

Was Gillum, a man well-known for supporting the community, trying to help, or was he smart enough to recognize a valuable employee in the making? “Probably a little bit of both,” Birckhead said. Whatever his motivation, that decision has helped the venerable business, perhaps the oldest in Crozet (it’s between them and the Modern Barber Shop) to endure. 

The business model is one long-abandoned by larger operations, but it has worked. The store has just about everything you could want, sometimes tucked away where you can’t see it. That’s why customers are always greeted with an offer of help. Chances are whatever you need is there somewhere, and the employee will put his hands right on it. “We can’t offer a real lumberyard, or a huge paint selection. We’re not contractor-oriented but more to serve individual homeowners, gardeners and farmers,” Birckhead said. 

Crozet Hardware’s new owner, Jeff Birckhead. Photo: Mike Marshall.

Here’s what services they can offer, many of them lost arts: cutting glass to specification, repairing kerosene heaters, re-wiring lamps, putting new handles on tools, fixing an old-fashioned lantern, re-screening screens. They’ll sell you a custom length of stovepipe or a wick for an oil lamp. There’s a sharpening service that will increase the efficiency of almost anything that cuts or slices.  

Besides the transition to the new owner, the administrative tasks haven’t changed much either. The employees still conduct a labor-intensive inventory once a year, free from any kind of computerized system, but powered by manual counting. “I’m kind of a Scrooge at Christmas,” Birckhead said. “None of us looks forward to the end-of the-year inventory.” At any time of year, he would rather be out on the floor than doing paperwork, but he understands that the practices set in place still work well. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.

Despite the inventory, employees tend to stay. Billy Staples has been there almost as long as Birckhead. Tim Richardson joined the staff about six years ago, and Jeff Wood, familiar to everyone who patronized the Crozet Market, came on board a few months ago. 

There have been changes, gradual ones. Kerosene heaters have fallen out of favor, and there’s less demand for bulk seeds. “At one time we might need 10 50-pound bags of Top Crop bean seed for our customers,” Birckhead said. “Nowadays, most people want just a small packet.” Bulk seeds are still available, most of them tried-and-true varieties that do well in this climate. 

Nothing has ever topped the extreme demand of the blizzard of 2010. That said, the store does a lot of business every winter, whether or not the snow actually falls. Birckhead said people come in at any threat of a storm for gloves, sleds, shovels, rock salt and other supplies. “They just freak out at even a hint of snow,” Birckhead said, “kind of the same as what happens at grocery stores.” And if you need any kind of bolt, or washer, or screw, you can bet it will be in the drawers behind the counter, and you can buy the exact amount you need.

These days, the staff never knows exactly what the Friday truck will bring in. Certain colors of spray paint or anything that’s petroleum-based might be back ordered as glitches in the supply chain continue.

While other businesses struggled through the pandemic years, Crozet Hardware thrived, as people passed the time with do-it-yourself projects, or planted gardens for the first time, or learned how to hang pictures or replace door knobs. With a lot of growth in housing, more and more people are discovering they can find whatever they need for their new homes. Once they come in, they find more than a wide variety of useful products. They’ll also get a great deal of free advice on home maintenance, gardening, plumbing and product selection, all of it mastered over many years of trial and error. But, Birckhead said, he can still be stumped by someone asking for an unfamiliar product or a replacement for a part he’s never seen. “After all these years, I’m still learning.” 

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