Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Red At Christmas

I had a chance today to catch up with a family friend at her hardware store. It’s probably been six months since I saw Jane last, what with my recent prolonged absence and my excessive brooding prior to my departure. At any rate, she’s a great lady, has a neat family, and also runs a great business. I enjoy chatting with her, learning about her latest choir performances at church, and how her family is doing.

Jane grew up in Martinsville, VA, back when it was a booming industrial town and rivaled Charlottesville, VA in size. Dupont had been there since before the war, and an abundance of textile mills and furniture factories kept the region swiftly-growing, profitable, and successful. But that changed as the mills moved their facilities overseas, followed by the furniture factory, and then eventually even Dupont outsourced. Now only a few businesses remain, along with innumerable empty buildings, and a rapidly dwindling population. Where did they go, I asked. Anywhere they could find work.

Years ago, Jane met her future husband in business college and they eventually relocated to his hometown in Louisa. Some time later, they started up a hardware store at Zion Crossroads, just down the road from our house. Fifteen years later, they’re well-established, have well-stocked shelves, and are good friends with every builder in the region.

Yet not everything is wonderful, however. Earlier this year a Lowes opened up just half a mile down the road. Naturally, their lower prices and enormous selections enticed customers away from Jane’s business. But it was the economy that threw the tougher blow. Sales are down – for everybody. Lowes, in fact, may not stay in business long. There’s just not enough building going on locally to support such an enterprise. A small hardware store, yes. A super-duper mega-hardware store, no.

Jane’s sales are the lowest in at least ten years. Her few employees have all voluntarily cut back their hours significantly, even her own daughter, who has now taken other jobs to help pay the bills. Even in the thirty minutes I was there, only a handful of customers came through. Only two bought anything.

But there’s something about her store that I very much like. For starters, when I walk in, I’m greeted by name. I’ve known Jane, her husband, and one of her daughters for most of my teenage and adult life. They ask how I’m doing, and I ask how they’re doing. I know who’s dating whom, and they (alas) know some of the details of my love life as well (thanks, Dad). Even my former boss, Ray, still chats with her about me. I’m sure they’re all lies.

Every one of the customers who strode in today was greeted individually, and by name. Every one of them reciprocated the gesture. You’d find no such thing at Lowes. They frequently don’t even know what’s in their store.

Do you have such and such trash bags? An older man poses his question before the doors even shuts.

Hey Harry. Yes, they’ll be arriving on the next truck in about 20 minutes. They come in a roll now, not a box. We’ll call you when the truck comes in if you want.

That’s just fine. See you in a little while. Thanks, and he heads out.

Jane asks about my family and tells me to convey her greetings. She inquires about customers’ families. Everybody is doing okay. Things are slow though.

Same as in her store. I asked if they’ll be okay through this.

“Awhile back I prayed that I would make it six months. And we did. Now I’m praying that I make it another six months.”

She asked me to pray for her, too, and I will. I know she prays for me.

The greatest struggle right now is determining if she’ll have to let anybody go at the beginning of the next year. She doesn’t want to. I’ve grown up knowing most of them. People have come and gone, yes, but a few are just as much fixtures as Jane. Especially her daughter, currently working multiple jobs, and struggling to earn a degree and pursue a successful career in business.

Jane loves this job. They’ve been wildly successful for years as the only hardware store for miles in any direction. Even with Lowes next door, people still kept her busy because they KNOW her. She’s nice, and she runs a great store. She, and every other employee, can tell you the location of the tiniest bolt and knickknack in their stock. They care about their customers. In many ways, I see it as her ministry to the community.

Are they are at least in the black? She laughs. Of course not. She’s remarkably cheerful for being the owner of an enterprise with a decidedly shaky future. But I know she doesn’t gauge her personal contentedness on the success or failure of her business. That satisfaction lies far deeper – in things more intangible, but also longer lasting. Regardless of how a stalled economy effects her business, she will place her trust in God, not wealth.

Her core customers will still come to her first for their building needs, and she will keep greeting them by name and praying for them. A few of them probably pray for her, too. I will join them, one prayer at a time, one quarter at a time, six months at a time, and trust that she will continue to radiate the warmth and love that has made her more than a friend and neighbor, but family.

If you need stuff, go see Jane at Crossroads Home Center, Zion Crossroads, VA. She’ll sell you things and take your money, but pray for you, too. I encourage you to try that at Lowes. If you need directions, just e-mail me and I'll make sure you get them.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Prayer is powerful. No one knows how powerful.

    Any small business is in jeapordy in todays megastore world. Our small town has become a one business town, with several others trying to hang on. Probably symtomatic of the country.

  2. Ben, you hit home with this one.

    My family has operated a small hardware homecenter business for 100+ years. We have had to compete with Lowe's, 84 lumber and withen the last 10 years WALMART. And I am convinced it is because we offer a service that none of the others can campare with:PERSONAL CUSTOMER SERVICE We survived the great depression and we will see it through this ecomonomy too. Our employees are our family and they are very loyal to us as we are to them.
    When visitng my home last weekend in Spencer W.Va, we attended the little holiday party that we held for our employees. We commenced the festivites with a prayer and then proceeded with a covered dish of home made goodies brought in by the employees. I wonder if the local SuperWalmart or Lowes compares to this.
    Please tell Jane, that her personal touch to her loyal customers will see her through this. If Hardmans Home Center in Spencer W. Va (population 2000) can make it, she can too.