Interviewed November 17, 2004
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Vanderhoof Hardware Store — 100 years on the Milldam
"The best thing in the store is Scotty's welcoming grin and the eager cheerfulness of his expert problem-solving. He comes by it naturally, directly from this father, who had the same family know-how and serene willingness to help a bewildered customer."
Author Jane Langton, Lincoln, Mass.
"During high school I worked at Vanderhoof's and always remember what a wonderful man Parker's father Philip was to work for. I learned more there than in many of my courses and later in my life was inspired to try running a hardware store myself."
Elmer Brooks, Class of 1954, Concord High School, Wilmington, North Carolina.
Parker — In 1904 when my grandfather, Albert Vanderhoof, bought this store, it was a hardware and plumbing store. Albert Vanderhoof purchased the hardware store in 1904 from Mr. M.L. Hatch, the owner of the Glenwood Company that manufactured ranges, furnaces, steam and water heaters. He came out from Davis Square, Somerville where he had a store. He came out here to kind of slow down and take life a little easier. When he got here, he found people wanted to have bathrooms put in. It was at a time when everyone was upgrading. He had a crew of men that did that, plus put in heating systems. He even had them going out as far as Fitchburg. They put the heating system in for the Fitchburg Railroad Station, which was being built at that time. My grandparents lived on Main Street right about where Sally Ann's Food Shop is now and then built a house on Devens Street.
When my father, Philip, came back from World War I, he came back to the new house on Devens Street. He worked here at the store before he went to the service and started working here again when he came back. His older brother, Frank, was also working here. When my grandfather died in 1925, both my father and his brother took over and ran the store. It was through the Depression that I understand they would sell one item that would be replaced by several later, and managed to keep things going through the Depression.
My grandfather had purchased 1/3 of this building. My grandmother didn't want him to purchase the rest of it. They had enough property to take care of it so they never did buy the rest of the building. It's been very good because the way rents have gone up, you probably wouldn't be able to have a hardware store on the Milldam the way the prices for property and rents are now. He didn't get into any other real estate that I know of except the house on Devens Street and the house on Main Street they sold when they moved.
On the second floor in this building in the front section, there are two small office rooms and there was a dentist, Dr. Flavin, Sr., who had his dentist office there. He was a tenant of my father's. It was a coincidence that he ended up living in the same house on Devens Street that my grandfather had built. Other people have come in using the offices over the years, the last being an interior designer.
Before my time I understand that one side of the store had cast iron kitchen ranges and parlor stoves and things along that line. That of course faded out. I got in on the tail end of the kerosene stoves that people would put out on their back porches to keep the heat out of the kitchen. They would have two or three burners on them. We would sell quite a few of those. They would come in once a year probably towards the end of the summer. We would go up to the railroad freight terminal and pick up a truck load of those and put them in stock. Also at that time, there was a lot of white enamelware of which the only thing you see now is perhaps a white enamel pot in an antique shop. But one side of the store was pretty much covered with all different sizes and shapes of white enamel. You still see some of the blue enamel in canners and like that. The garden sprayers were about that same period of time. They were ordered in the fall for the next spring and they would be all these pump sprayers with like flip guns as they used to call them. I don't think people today would even recognize those. They all think of pressurized control.
I started working here in 1945 at age 16 so most of these things I mentioned were even before that time. At that time the aluminum ware was starting to come in. Wearever was quite a line and people went to that. People used that for many years until they blamed that on early dementia with the aluminum getting into the brain. So that has faded out.
I started working after school and Saturdays and summers. After I finished business school, I came in full time until I went into the service. My father used to say that prior to my coming in he was running a pre-Navy school because George Rice, Sam DeMao, Al Hanlon, and Evie Dexter were just a few of the boys that worked here. They all seemed to gravitate to the Navy after putting in their apprenticeship here. We've had men come back that worked here as a youngster that have said how much it had benefited them and that they had kept utilizing the knowledge they got while working here.
The old cash register was a big old National Cash Register with four drawers in it. It was wood at the bottom and cast brass at the top and painted kind of a greenish color. I noticed the date on one of the drawers was 1909 when it was sold to Albert Vanderhoof. It has a tape mechanism that was worn out by the time I started here. We upgraded to an electric cash register that had a tape so we could keep track of things. Of course, it has progressed now so that it's a computer with a cash drawer instead of a cash register. I saved the old cash register for a period of years then of course you have a point when you have a grand cleaning out and we got rid of it.
Remembering back to what the Milldam was like, everybody seemed so busy back then. I know my dad used to have coffee with a few of his friends that were in business such as Les Anderson, John Flannery, or somebody from Boston Gas who had an office around the corner. He has his group of coffee friends you might say. Just how much business they discussed and how much was recreational, I don't know. I had a few in my age bracket who would show up at the store and say, "Let's have a cup of coffee." I don't know that it was a lot of businessmen. I would get involved with other businessmen in the Lions Club and the Chamber of Commerce.
But the center of town has changed over the years. You used to be able to come in and park your car right in the center and do every bit of your shopping on foot. It's a little difficult to do that now. Back then we had three grocery stores, Anderson's, First National and A& P, and several clothing stores. Kussin's used to be directly across the street, Concord Clothing, and Nourses. We had two drug stores right in town. A tailor was upstairs in the other end of this building that was owned by a family named Nelson. The tailor, Max Arkin, was there for a good many years. His brother Sam had a shop up over Richardson's Drug Store which is now The Harness Shop. There used to be a variety store at the other end of this building too.
The traffic in the center of town has increased quite a bit over the years. Of course, the parking used to be angle parking. I remember the policeman in the traffic box at the corner. I remember when Ned Finan was a patrolman directing traffic. He'd beckon for me to come ahead and somebody would be pulling out of a parking space right next to me, he'd say "Better let her go, she'll kill you if you don't." The traffic box was still there in the early 1960s. In fact, Ned Finan was chief at that time and in the movie, "Never Too Late", he helped Maureen Sullivan cross the street. He stopped all the traffic so they could film that.
The 5:00 to 6:00 time in the afternoon seemed to be a busy time at the store. I suppose a lot of people only had one car and their wife would pick them up at the station and they'd stop off here to get their material for their Saturday morning project or whatever. There used to be a line of cars up there. We used to have longer hours. It used to be 8:00 to 6:00. I cut it back to 5:30 because that type of traffic kind of slowed up. We didn't see so much of that as time went on.
Running a hardware store, you do have to have a lot of knowledge of what you're selling. Even today I think that's what attracts people to small stores because they know they will get individual help with a particular problem they have. It seemed simple enough because if you know how to do it, you can walk some of these people through it. Some people just have a mental block about some of those things. You have to show them it's not a big problem to do.
"Hardware U" was the title of an article in the Reader's Digest some years back that the author was saying you got quite an education coming in even if it's not your problem. You can even eavesdrop and pick up some information when somebody else is getting the instruction.
Jane Langton, the author, has used the store's name in her books over the years. In one of the books, she had the main character working in the store which made an interesting mystery, which is mostly what she wrote. The book was God and Concord.
Back before my time so my father told me they did tin work upstairs. This type of work ties in with their plumbing and heating business where they used to make the duct work and hot air furnaces. The old chain fall or lift is in the second floor ceiling and there were trap doors that opened on the second floor and the first floor so they could take them out the cellar door and load them on a wagon or truck to be delivered. I know one of the things they told about was when the farmers would come in with their milk pails because the bottom would get worn out. They would bring them in and the tin smiths would cut the old bottom out and make a new bottom piece for it and solder that in. As the pails kept getting redone that way, they kept getting shorter because you had to keep cutting the old bottom out. I guess there was one episode where one farmer must have had a bottle under the table because he was waiting for his pails to be fixed and must have been sipping on something because as I understand it they put him on the wagon and he went up around the corner lickety split and he lost some of his reworked milk pails off the back of the wagon. A tin knocker was always what I heard it called. They formed that with a hammer and an anvil.
When the chain hardware stores came in, the independent stores like us joined together in a co-op, a small co-op that was based in New Hampshire. That gave us the buying power of a group which helped quite a bit on being able to compete with prices. That kind of got our feet wet with a cooperative type distributor. Then we joined American Hardware which became Service Star which merged with True Value. As Scott is running it now, it's under True Value. We're still independent and it's like a buying group that you buy shares in it and you become part owner of it basically.
When I started working here, we drew from quite a few surrounding towns because Concord was a banking center so you had a lot of people who came and did their banking here. There weren't too many stores in the outlying communities so that people did come here to do a lot of their business. They came from as far away as Harvard and Littleton, and of course, Carlisle. But now with a hardware store in each town, we're drawing from a smaller area then what we used to. But it still seems to be a very good business to be in a small town.
My son, Scott, is the fourth generation running the business. He's got a couple of daughters and I'm not sure how they're looking towards the business when Scott wants to retire. Scott has a nephew that comes in and helps and he may want to run it too. So we'll see.
Our 100th anniversary on the Milldam took place on September 25 of this year. It was a very festive occasion. Phebe Ham did a great job of getting the other stores around here to participate and Dana Booth brought his Model T down and that kind of added to it. We had an accordionist out there part of the time and we had a three-piece combo on the sidewalk, and some of the folks that I used to deal with showed up. It was a very nice time. The selectmen ran off a proclamation and said September 25 was Vanderhoof day so that put quite a legal connotation on it.
Scott — I believe I started working here when I was in the 7th grade. I sat down with my guidance counselor and when they asked what I thought I would like to do, I said I thought I'd like to follow in the steps of my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather and run the hardware business. I've enjoyed it ever since.
You know in a hardware store nails are still nails, glass is glass, they will always be the basic staples of a hardware store. We have more items now than we've ever had before. The inventory sheet of 1904 was just one sheet. All the goods were on one side of the sheet. Now we've expanded to over 33,000 items. It's just a variety of things. There are many, many items in here and a little bit of everything.
Back when my father was in the business, items came in one style. Now an item can come in many different varieties. Back in those days, everything was like black or white. Like the silverware tray, you bought came in just one standard color. Now you have decorator colors and that probably adds another 12 SKUs to your assortment. Of course in a 1000-square foot store, you don't always have the room to display all those things. Each item has expanded in its line to a dozen items.
I've worked in the store 33 years and have been on my own since 1995, and I have had a lot of good help working for me. An old timer, John Mearls was in his 80s and working for me here. He worked for my dad and my grandfather. I've always been partial to 80-year-olds. Ed Crosby was in his 80s working under me. Harris Kripps another man in his 80s worked under me. They seem to be very punctual. You could set your clock by them and very dependable. In addition to them, I have my part-time help.