Curiosity may bring new customers into Renfrow Hardware, but a nostalgic awe will hold them in place. At first, Renfrow Hardware appears untouched by time. It’s occupied the same flat faced brick building since 1900. An old fashioned ladder slides along walls shelved high with everything imaginable. There are tools, pipes, nails, and assorted watchamacalums.
There is even a rooster. His name is Better Boy and along with several hens, Better Boy lives at the store year round.
Inside, a row of tin tubs hangs from the ceiling by their handles. Dale Lauder, a first time visitor, is reminded of his childhood in Georgia.
“Ah yes, it was a number ten tub”, Lauder says, “They heated the water on a wooden stove, poured it in that number ten tub and that’s what we took a bath in.”
While Renfrow Hardware does invoke images of the past, its owner David Blackley says he isn’t interested in preserving his inventory.
“All this weird stuff in here, somebody is buying it or it wouldn’t be here.” Blackley says. “This is not a museum this is a business and this is not a hobby. It is kind of remarkable the mixture of things but it has just evolved.”
Blackley graduated from NC State with an engineering degree but never gave the field a chance. Instead he bought Renfrow Hardware. His first day on the job was the day after graduation.
In the 28 years since, Blackley has seen his fair share of changes and challenges.
“It’s not easy,” Blackley says. “It’s a pretty lean life some of the times. But you survive by just being observant, by not being afraid to experiment and also not being afraid to not change.”
In the 1980s and 90s Renfrow Hardware lived off the area’s housing boom. With times as they are, he can’t do that anymore. To survive, Blackley took Renfrow Hardware back to its farm supply roots.
Today half of his revenue now comes from food gardening sales.
“I like the guys that come in and buy a dozen shovels but they are gone and they aren’t coming back” Blackley says. “But the ones that come in and buy a dozen tomato plants make us just as happy because they come a month later and buy another dozen tomato plants.”
Fruit trees, blackberry and raspberry bushes, and greenhouse seedlings are also popular items.
“People were saying you know I’d liked to grow vegetables and I’d like to make tomato juice but not have all the sodium in it that Campbell’s does or I’d like to try to raise some chickens and have eggs without all hormones in them.”
Blackley says the transition was easy because he’s a small business owner saying, “The big boxes just can’t move that fast they are more like a battle ship.”
Standing stoic in the first room is an iron potbelly stove for heating the place and roasting peanuts on cold winter days. Jeff Shea crouches next to his four year old son, Finn, and shows him how to crack open a peanut. He often takes two boys and two girls to Renfrow Hardware to learn some practical skills. He teaches them about tools, gardening and how to take care of their family’s chickens.
Shea moved to Matthews from Massachusetts five years ago.
“I tell you the first time that we came here this was one of the first places we walked into, and when I walked in here just the greeting that you get the atmosphere the people here the way life should be. “
Sometimes giving customers what they need means sending them to someone else, even if it is Lowes or Home Depot. Blackley doesn’t want a customer to leave without knowing where to go.
“A lot of maps have been scribbled on the back of paper bags- here this is where you go find so and so. So they leave happy at least.”
Blackley recommends stopping by in April. That’s when the baby chicks arrive and the place is active with gardeners.
“That is the thing about gardeners they are all in a good mood” says Blackley. “Christmas people are grumpy but gardeners are great.”
Originally appeared on WFAE March 21, 2012.