After a century, plug is pulled on a Main Line hardware institution

In a sign of the big-box times, Suburban Hardware in Bryn Mawr will close at the end of this month. Everything must go, including owner Charlie Waters and the bear.

In the dusty basement of Suburban Hardware in Bryn Mawr, lit by yellowed fluorescents, are names and dates scribbled in ink across posts, beams, and shelves -- testaments that Wooter '67, Tina '74, Paxton '04, and a hundred others, give or take, had passed through.

They were the teenagers who spent summers and after-school hours working at this storefront shrine for multitudes of Main Liners on home-improvement missions. Nearly all of the kids went their own ways afterward. But Wooter -- Charlie Waters of Haverford High -- stayed. Over the next 50 years, he became as much of a fixture as the bear standing sentry at the front door along Lancaster Avenue.

He had a mental map to every nut and bolt in stock. He fixed locks, cut keys, replaced batteries in watches and flashlights, and, he figures, assembled more than 1,000 Weber grills. No matter the request, the unfailing answer was, “Charlie can do it.”

Now, as co-owner and manager, he’s facing the toughest task of all: pulling the plug on Suburban Hardware.

The emporium that opened in the early 1900s will close at the end of this month. Everything must go. Including Charlie.

“It’s been emotional," he said. "People think it’s going to stay here forever, [but] downtown hardware stores are becoming a thing of the past.”

To be clear, Suburban Hardware's demise has as much to do with Waters' desire to retire as it does with industry metrics. At 66, it's enough already. Still, he would rather have sold it than closed it. And the fact that he could find no buyer -- on a busy main street that lost its only other hardware merchant a dozen years ago -- speaks to something much bigger than Charlie Waters.

From 2007 to 2012, according to the U.S. Census, the number of independently owned hardware stores decreased by 6.1 percent, to about 15,500. All told, though, there are 35,000 retailers nationwide, including major home centers, and when they are thrown into the mix, industrywide sales for 2016 climbed nearly 6 percent over the previous year, the North American Retail Hardware Association reported.

The wealth isn't evenly spread around, Hardware Retailing magazine reported in its annual industry analysis. "Consumers opened their pocketbooks more freely for home remodeling projects and big-ticket items," it wrote, and that plumped up big-box bottom lines.

Meanwhile, as customers turn to a Lowes or Home Depot for washing machines and kitchen cabinets, employees at the local hardware store might spend 15 minutes solving an appliance riddle and, in the end, sell an 80-cent part.

That Suburban Hardware -- part of the True Value cooperative -- stayed open as long as it did is a tribute to "loyal customers," Waters said. "But customers get older. They had house accounts, and now they’re in nursing homes.” Most millennials, he noted, use the internet instead of stopping by a hardware store.

Waters' son, Andy, 38, had no interest in taking the wheel. During his senior year in high school, he worked there every spring Sunday. By summer, he concluded that his dad labored too hard for too little money. He went to college and became a mechanical engineer.

“He figured it out,” the elder Waters said. “... I’m glad he chose a different path.”

In high school, Waters also had a different path in mind -- electronics. So when a friend first offered him the hardware job, he declined. But his buddy was adamant. "To work at Suburban," he told Waters, "is an honor."

Its beginnings seem to be lost in the mists of Main Line history, though a photo hanging in a nearby State Store and dated 1915 shows the store, then called W.L. Hayden Hardware, with a Model-T parked out front. In 1947, the Hayden family sold the business to Kelly and Mario Barone and Ed Riddell, who held on to it for more than four decades. In 1990, it was bought by Waters and Jed Riddell, Ed's son; they also acquired another hardware landmark, Ricklin's in Narberth. Riddell helmed the latter, and Waters stayed at his home base.

With the purchase price came the Suburban Hardware mascot: a real stuffed bear, stationed at the door. In the mid-1990s, however, Bryn Mawr College students, finding its presence offensive, demanded that the bruin be removed. Waters complied, and got a wooden version.   

When Suburban Hardware's lease ran out in 2016, with no replacement lined up, property owner Tim Rubin, of R.I.R. Management Services, asked Waters to stay an extra year. He agreed "for my employees," said Waters, who has seven of them. "... We are like family. It keeps me up nights worrying about what they are going to do.”

Megan Davis has worked at Suburban since she was 14. She's now 23. Her father worked there as a teenager. “It’s bittersweet. You don't live forever, and the boss needs to retire sometime,” she said.

“I have customers that are children of customers. ... Customers' children now own homes,” said Jim McGovern, an employee for 13 years. He used to work down the street at the now-defunct Bryn Mawr Hardware, which was fronted by an iconic white plaster horse, also gone.

According to Rubin, there are no plans for who or what will replace Suburban Hardware, although considering the amount of space, Waters bets it will be a restaurant.

He won't be diving off the deep end into retirement. He says he will work part time at Ricklin's. He also wants to rent an RV and travel cross-country with his wife, Donna.

And despite many cash offers, he's keeping the bear.