TILTON — The character of Bryant and Lawrence Hardware hasn't changed much in 100 years – and that's a key to its success.  At a time when big box stores, national and regional chains, and internet behemoths claim the lion's share of sales of close to everything, the old-time store on Main Street is a friendly fixture and monument to simpler times, perched between hair and tanning salons, restaurants, a health food store and a vape shop.

It's a feast of gadgets, hand tools, fittings and fasteners, fry pans, camp stoves, work gloves, wool socks and single-serving you-name-its – which can be tough to find in larger stores, except in bags that contain lots of them. Bryant and Lawrence is also a purveyor of something that doesn't change with time: personal service.

"I like to engage my customers. I've learned to like people, even if they are unlikable," said Bill Lawrence, who originally wanted to be a social worker. "You can buy one screw or one bolt or one nut if you want. I see it as a collection of everyday things,” said Lawrence, who also calls customers he knows and asks, "Is there anything I can get in for you?"

“From when I started, we’ve tried to keep the local flavor. We stock some things because people will come in once a year and buy them.” That includes walking sticks a regular customer whittled and asked him to sell.

At a time when brick and mortar stores are under siege from the internet, corporate competitors and the long-lived pandemic, Bryant and Lawrence is a marathon runner – and it profited during COVID-19 – reaching sales peaks from 20 years ago by listening to customers and stocking plenty of seeds and tools for gardeners, and equipment for do-it-yourselfers with new time for home improvements, said Lawrence. 

During uncertain periods, including COVID-19, small businesses have had to be flexible while relying on proven recipes. Some of their strategies are universal, and provide a crash course on how to survive. The formulas inevitably include heightened customer service that engenders something else that is valuable during unpredictable times: loyalty.

“It’s the difference between owning your own store and being part of a big conglomerate.  How we compete with big stores is service,” said Bob Grevior, 80, who has worked at his family’s store, Grevior Furniture in Franklin, since he was 14 – lugging and moving everything from mattresses to sofas.  “If someone needs a lift chair so they can have more independence, or if people have fires or floods or hard times, we help them with second-hand things”  they have stored in a nearby building. During the final hours before many businesses, including furniture stores, shut down in spring, Grevior's squeezed in same-day deliveries, including to Concord. “We serve the town because the town served us,” Grevior said.

Small businesses have widely different origins, histories and ways of doing things, and their experiences during COVID haven't been identical.

In New Hampshire, lumber, hardware and construction experienced a boom because of a surge in remodeling and home improvement projects, while hospitality and personal care, including salons, teetered close to folding. Accounts of businesses closing were fairly common. But reliable estimates won’t be available until businesses file their tax returns in spring. The New Hampshire Division of Economic Development does not have numbers because businesses are not required to report closing unless it results in sizeable layoffs.

Recent surveys by Yelp, a business review site, rated New Hampshire as the country’s fourth most economically resilient state during COVID, based on the number of new restaurants and food businesses that opened between March 1 and September 30 – 157 statewide. According to Yelp, 695 New Hampshire businesses had reopened as of September 30. But uncertainties remain.

With winter looming and COVID re-peaking, small businesses in the Lakes Region are bracing for unknowns – in government stimulus money, consumer spending, interest rates and the stock market – and ongoing gaps in the supply chain that they have never seen before, according to local business owners.

"Most businesses realize they have to cut their expenses to keep the blood flowing. They need to keep money coming in unless they want to use personal funds to keep the business,” said Tom Volpe, former chief executive of Melcher and Prescott Insurance and the agency’s owner for 52 years. With a vaccine expected to be widely available by spring, “We can see a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just a question of how long that tunnel is.”

“You’ve got to remain positive, even when you might not get a positive outcome,” said Corey Benson, owner-manager of Benson Auto in Franklin, and the fourth generation of his family to run that Chevrolet dealership, one of the nation’s oldest.

Rita Toth, the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center's advisor for Belknap and Grafton counties, said lessons small businesses learned during COVID will mean a healthier long-term future. They include creating a strong online presence that offers valuable content and is easy for customers to navigate, trimming excess labor and office costs, cutting back on excess inventory, and bumping up customer service so it becomes a brand – and a favorable contrast to online buying.

Customer service, community loyalty

Twenty years shy of his 100th birthday, Bob Grevior still works daily at his store, with his two sons, a grandson and a staff of canine greeters, including a Great Dane, a slightly shorter Rottweiler, and cross between a retriever and a beagle. The dogs all have wagging tails.

Together they supply what customers have come to expect at the Central Street mainstay, even in economically challenging times: Friendly faces eager to please, not push – and personal service in good times and bad.

Since the pandemic hobbled the supply chain, Bob Grevior said his furniture store has relied on service and customer loyalty to stay afloat. Demand for furniture has held steady, but factory deliveries have been delayed by 18 to 32 weeks – longer than most consumers are willing to wait, he said. So his son Jason, the store's manager, calls customers to update them on progress during what has amounted to a long-lasting manufacturing slowdown. Most customers have been patient, Bob Grevior said, and the store has lost only three sales since the pandemic began.

He’s also channeled lessons from the past.  In 1981, an arsonist set fire to the building, and Grevior Furniture lost more than half of its inventory, including antiques. Grevior considered moving to land the family owned on Main Street in Tilton, but his wife told him to wait. In 1985, a second blaze demolished the entire store “down to the cellar hole,” Grevior said. Loans from friends and donated labor enabled the business to rebuild both times, and Grevior is glad he stayed.

“Franklin has been good to us, good to my father and good to me,” he said. After the fires, “it was the town and the people that came through for us. A lot of friends said, ‘What do you need? Money, whatever.’ It’s something that wouldn’t have happened in a big town. And it’s the biggest reason the store grew from nothing to a fairly substantial furniture store.” 

During challenges, it’s crucial to take a hard look at costs, Grevior said. “In business, cash flow is everything. First of all, you cut your overhead. Don’t stock as much. You don’t have extra help hanging around. You bring it down to yourself, one other person and a delivery team, if necessary.  Before the 2008 recession, we had 14 employees. Then we went down to 10. Then we went down to five. Now we have six or seven,” he said.  

When it’s a struggle to keep up with bills, “The main thing is stay in contact with your creditors, because they can make or break you. Call them once or twice a week.  Tell them what’s going on. As long as you’re honest, they can give you leeway to pay.”

During COVID, Grevior's sales approach has remained the same. “This is a very laid back and relaxed place,” said Grevior. “I tell people, ‘We’re not ignoring you.  Just walk around. If you see something you like, let us know.”

The dogs are part of the culture, he said. “In general, dogs are nicer than people.  And they’re great stress relievers. Instead of Walmart greeters, I have the dogs, and people say they like the dogs better.”

When the economy is in flux, seize a niche

In an age of less-personal commerce at big box stores and online, Bryant and Lawrence is a mecca for thrift-seekers and in-person shoppers, a place for browsing and chatting about weather and neighborhood news, and getting the other things you need in small doses.

Knowing and serving customers – including generations of the same family – has been key to surviving downturns, market crashes and consumer belt-tightening, Lawrence said. “It's being the constant that people expect, and the personal service for customers you’ve known,” sometimes for decades.

The store's atmosphere and appearance haven’t changed much since 1859, when it was founded as Philbrick and Hill, then renamed Bryant and Lawrence in 1921 when Lawrence’s grandfather bought it. Today It belongs to the Hardware Century Club – a roster of hardware stores nationwide that have been around for 100 years or longer.

Memorabilia and outdoorsy displays line the walls, including a stuffed black bear posing with one paw on a tree stump. There are racks of amusing refrigerator magnets and wry greeting cards, a choice of disposable flashlights and a couple of toys for kids who come to the store with dad or grandpa and get fidgety, or want to spend their allowance. A round table near the cash register features old photographs of Tilton’s downtown, and a store ledger from 1876 that was discovered in a dusty corner upstairs. Visitors can take a self-guided tour through history before or after they browse.

One wall contains second-hand hunting firearms on consignment.  “Sometimes commonplace things become unusual things if they move slowly enough,” Lawrence said. “Listening to customers, that seems to be the key,” he said. “Being responsive to them” in ways that big chains and box stores can’t, or find impractical. 

Lawrence said he tries to cooperate with neighboring businesses, even competitors, referring customers back and forth. The big stores, such as Lowe's, Walmart and Home Depot are less than two miles east, and Aubuchon Hardware and Tractor Supply are about the same distance west. Survival has meant staking out a niche, or seizing an emerging gap. They “sell bags of Sakrete concrete mix. We don’t,” said Lawrence. “But we seem to have a better reputation making house keys.”

Also important is living within one's available space and means. “You’re always trying to balance what you think is the best product,” he said, but you have to be “discretionary in what you carry, because your budget can’t carry a variety of everything,”

How do you stay solvent during the toughest times? Rent from two remodeled apartments above the store provides an income cushion, Lawrence said, and “I don’t pay myself very much, that’s the biggest thing.”

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