A lot has changed in Tilton since the hardware store now known as Bryant and Lawrence opened in the 1850s. Bill Lawrence Jr., the store owner, said those changes have added up to an environment that is no longer hospitable to his business.
The store dates back to the mid-19th century, Lawrence Jr. said. It was originally Philbrick and Hill, and historic photos show a dirt Main Street in a town that was then called Sanbornton Bridge. One photo shows a horse and carriage tried up in front of a store advertising West Indies goods and hardware. The business has had its current name since 1921, reflecting then-new owners Maurice Bryant and Oakes Lawrence, Bill Jr.’s grandfather.
Lawrence Jr. grew up helping out at the store, building relationships with the townspeople who would come in looking for help with their problems. He left for college, but didn’t stay away long.
“I was trying to get a job as a social worker,” Lawrence Jr. said. “I said, I really enjoy this business. I feel like I’m a social worker here.”
Lawrence Jr. took over in 1983. During his tenure, he has seen the arrival of “big box” competition. A mile away, shoppers can find a Lowe’s, Home Depot and WalMart.
“Just up the road, you’ve got these huge stores that have just what I’ve got for product,” he said. “I’ve survived them for the past 20 years, I think that the internet is the last nail in the coffin.
It took until 2018 for the online marketplace to start to eat up his customers. He became seriously concerned when last year’s Christmas sales were off by 30%. That set the tone for every month since, he said.
“It’s gotten so bad that I can’t pay myself on a regular basis,” he said. Lawrence Jr. is now looking at other options, such as locking the door on the hardware store and taking a job elsewhere so that he can pay his bills.
Not every independently-owned hardware store is suffering, though. Kate Klein, assistant editor for the North American Retail Hardware Association, said there’s room in the marketplace for the independent hardware store to compete. But to do so, they’ve got to be able to shift their business model to fit that space.
“Independent hardware stores can be very different from each other, with varying business models, but we often see them use similar strategies for competing against online and big-box retailers,” Klein said. “Successful independent retailers tend to know their local customer base very well and modify their product mixes to serve their individual communities. These retailers are adaptable, responding to customers’ requests for products, services and expert help. They also look for niche ways to make their businesses stand out. For example, they may develop strong beekeeping or home brewing departments to meet local demand. They may offer specialty handyman services, small engine repair or event space rentals.”
Many other local hardware stores have found their own recipe for success.
Reuben Wentworth, owner of the Alton Home and Garden Center, said he often surprises new customers with his prices on certain items, especially on plumbing supplies and certain cuts of lumber, which compare favorably to his much larger competitors. He is also fortunate that there isn’t a big box competitor in town, and that there are hundreds of 60 year-old seasonal cottages nearby – no matter how diligently their owners prepare them for winter hibernation, something always goes wrong when they’re awakened months later.
“Business has been good, I have no complaints,” Wentworth said. But he has had to work hard to keep people coming to his store. He added propane filling to the line of services, and recently added a U-Haul truck rental franchise. He doesn’t make much profit on either, he said, but it brings new faces through the door.
“We were never here to get rich,” Wentworth said. “I consider this more of a hobby than a job… We help somebody get back home and get their project done as cheaply as we can, that’s our goal.”
Bill Finethy opened the Gilford Home Center in 1986. Since then, a Lowe’s and a WalMart have opened up a short distance away. He has insulated himself against both of those competitors, and from online retailers, by focusing on his efforts to attract contractors.
Finethy stocks high-quality products, such as Festool power tools or Honda snowblowers, which aren’t stocked by large retailers. You might be able to get them online, but he said his customers are too busy to wait for shipping.
“When a contractor breaks his saw, he can walk into a store and buy a new saw. He can’t wait two days for Amazon to deliver,” Finethy said.
To survive in the modern marketplace, Finethy said it’s critical to be known for something.
“Try to find a niche, you’ve just got to find a niche. You can’t sell cheapest, I think people realize that when you go to the big box you are buying on price. When you come to us, when you buy a Honda snowblower, you’re buying the last snowblower you’ll buy in your life.”
For Pam Langlitz, second-generation owner of Trustworthy Hardware in Laconia, their niche has been service. Whatever they happen to have on their shelves, she said there’s one thing that attracts customers.
“I tell every one of these guys I hire, we sell service. Service is what brings people through these doors,” Langlitz said. That, and the fact that Trustworthy’s property has shorefront and a U-shaped dock on Paugus Bay, meaning that Winnipesaukee’s island residents can fill their propane tanks or pick up supplies for a project without needing to use a car or truck.
Trustworthy Hardware was started nearly 50 years ago by her father, “Moe” Martineau. Langlitz has been involved in the business for the past 35 years, and has owned it since 2015.
“Business has been good,” she said. “It’s steady, year to year.”
Back in Tilton, Lawrence Jr. said the only thing steady has been the decline of his sales. He has tried to carve out a niche for himself by offering window and screen repair, and by offering sporting goods. He even stretched himself to start a Facebook page last year, but it failed to bring in more customers.
“It feels very consistent, I’m not seeing any kind of improvement,” he said. “It feels very strange.”
Bryant and Lawrence doesn’t have a dock, it doesn’t have Alton Bay’s clusters of seasonal cottages and it doesn’t have the parking that contractors would require.
Not only does Bryant and Lawrence lack in advantages, its disadvantages are more numerous. His customers would need to find a street parking spot in order to shop at his store. Then there’s the competition: Lowe’s, Home Depot and WalMart to the east, and in the other direction a Tractor Supply, Cyr Lumber and Aubuchon. Tilton’s Main Street is no longer a retail destination, he said.
Lawrence Jr. is 66, and if business doesn’t turn around, he will have to find another way to support himself. That will mean Bryant and Lawrence will close its doors for the first time since before to the Civil War. At age 70, though, Lawrence Jr. will be able to collect his maximum Social Security benefit, which will allow him to retire. And he already knows how he wants to spend his retirement.
“I can come back and open the store just for fun,” he said. “I’m not interested in selling out.” In Tilton, as in towns throughout the country, the independent hardware store was a cornerstone of the community. “It built America from the late 1800s through the 1950s.”