When Bill Edwards opened his first hardware store 37 years ago, Lexington was a small city with more traditional hardware stores than he could count on both hands.
Now Lexington is much bigger, but Edwards needs only one finger to count them. He says his Chevy Chase Hardware is the last one.
Ace Hardware in Tates Creek Center closed this spring, followed recently by Do it Best Hardware in Palomar Center. Others disappeared years ago. High rent and competition from big-box chains have taken their toll.
In fact, Edwards thinks his business would have been history 12 years ago had he not moved to East High Street from Richmond Road, where he had been for 20 years. Within months of each other, Home Depot and Lowe's opened stores near his.
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"We might have been able to survive one of them, but not two," Edwards said. "We work with a much smaller profit margin than most businesses because we carry a large inventory of slow-selling items."
Edwards said his store has always done well in the Chevy Chase building, which earlier housed hardware stores run by Wilson Cox and Dick Botkin. The area of small, mostly local retailers is an easy drive, walk or bike ride from in-town neighborhoods such as Chevy Chase, Ashland Park, Hollywood, Columbia Heights, Mentelle and Kenwick.
"This is a unique neighborhood, very supportive of local businesses," Edwards said. "That's a different attitude than we had at the other locations. It's almost like being in another town."
But Edwards credits his success to more than location. He said other keys to operating a good hardware store are selection, competitive prices and, most of all, customer service. At Chevy Chase Hardware, that includes everything from fixing lawn mowers and screens to sharpening tools, cutting glass and copying keys.
"Everybody's so friendly," said Debbie Chamblin, who usually walks over with her dog from her home on Ashland Avenue. One morning last week, she came in to buy a few things and pick up hedge trimmers she had left for sharpening.
"Just anything you need, they're ready and willing to help you," Chamblin said. "They'll even help me fix things."
Bill Mallory has been shopping with Edwards since he opened his first store on Centre Parkway in 1975.
"The nice thing here is you just tell the people what you need and they go right to it and get it for you," said Mallory, who now lives in Harrison County but stopped in for a few nuts and lock washers on his way to fish.
Edwards stocks more than 20,000 items in his 4,400 square feet of retail space, which has been expanded several times since the first hardware store opened there in 1946. He carries many hard-to-find items.
"If it's a slow-moving item that doesn't generate a lot of profit, they just won't carry it," he said of his big-box competitors.
Because his store is part of a national buying group, Edwards said, he can match most competitors' prices, except for some big-ticket items.
"We check Lowe's and Home Depot to make sure we are in line," he said. "Sometimes we're actually less than they are. We can't compete on everything, but we can certainly keep it reasonable enough to not offend anybody."
Hands-on management is key. Edwards works the floor six days a week, constantly straightening shelves when he isn't helping customers. His wife and co-owner, Carol, a former elementary school teacher, manages the office. They will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in February.
Chevy Chase Hardware has 11 employees, many of whom are college students or recent graduates. And then there is Luther Hilliard, 87, a longtime employee who now works a couple of days a week repairing screens.
"I don't know what I would do if I just had to sit around and not work," said Hilliard, who retired from the insurance business. "There's nothing on TV."
Edwards said he thought for years about opening a store on Leestown Road around Meadowthorpe, an area with qualities similar to Chevy Chase, but he could never find an affordable place to buy or rent. High rents are a big reason many hardware stores have closed in Lexington but remain in surrounding towns.
"We're fine if we can keep our rent under control," said Edwards, 63, who has tried unsuccessfully to buy his building. "We have seven years left on the lease, and I might be ready to quit by then."