Iconic Main Line hardware store bites the sawdust

Even before the snow started falling Wednesday on the Rockwellian main street of Narberth, on the quaint, been-there-forever hardware store called Ricklin’s, Jed Riddell had sold the last of his snow shovels. By the time the storm finished beating up on the village and environs, he was just about out of rock salt.

“Winter has always been a crap shoot in this business,” said Riddell, whose roots at Ricklin’s go back nearly all of his 67 years, to when his father bought the place in 1960.  By then, the store was almost a half-century old.

Now, with March’s third nor’easter in little more than a week possibly bearing down on the region, Riddell should be merrily restocking for the next stampede. Instead, the shelves have been allowed to empty, hurried along by deep, last-ditch discounts. Come April 28, Ricklin’s itself will be gone.

Retail, Riddell said simply, “is brutal.”

The home-supply industry happens to be booming, but look behind those numbers and you will find they are plumped by the big boxes and online distributing giants — not independent hardware stores, many of which have gone the way of just about everything Mom and Pop held dear. Less than a year ago, Ricklin’s sister store, Suburban Hardware in Bryn Mawr, closed. So now, another one bites the sawdust, and for its customers, who are legion and spread throughout the Main Line and parts of Philadelphia, the thought of losing this old haunt is wrenching.

The store sent out postcards last week announcing the closing, plus an everything-must-go sale. Ever since, a steady influx of mourners has been passing through to pay respects, score deals, walk the narrow aisles, and hear the wood floors creak one last time.

Pete Tyson, a Narberth native who now lives in New Jersey, made a special trip “just to see ya.”

“It’s finally time?” he asked.

Riddell was sure of it. He started working there for his dad when he was 23 and has owned the business since the late 1980s.  Within the last few years, he has had two heart attacks.

“It’s time to hold my wife’s hand for a while,” he said. “It’s time to go. I’m ready to retire.”

He added, “I am deeply complimented by the outpouring of support, though. We’ve done our best.”

He said he will miss his customers — or at least 90 percent of them.

A dubious distinction

Riddell said he tried to sell the whole hardware business a few years ago, but no one wanted to buy it. So in 2016, he and his partner, Charley Waters, sold the two buildings that make up Ricklin’s for nearly $1.3 million to an investment partnership. They paid rent for a while but chose to let the lease run out, he said, having decided he was too tired to continue.

Of Riddell’s three sons, none showed an interest in taking up the family business. “They weren’t raised to be a little me,” he said.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Some of the many key slugs at Ricklin’s Hardware in Narberth.

The closing of Ricklin’s will cast 16 employees out of work. It already has thrown an untold number of customers into a panic.  Riddell can name few “classic” hardware stores remaining on the Main Line, DYI havens where a homeowner can run for not only the right toilet flapper but guidance on installing it, where problems are sometimes solved without a cent being spent.

A woman approached Riddell last week, attempting to rally a coalition of neighbors to buy Ricklin’s. But the property owners didn’t seem interested, according to Riddell. “They have other plans,” he said, for the corner of Haverford and Essex Avenues, a prime location directly across from the SEPTA Regional Rail stop.

With that, a chapter will close on 105 years of Narberth history, one that began with Hyman Ricklin pushing a cart of tools door-to-door. In 1913, he opened a bricks-and-mortar store, which eventually passed into his children’s hands. They sold the enterprise to Riddell’s father, Ed, and the twin Barone brothers, Mario and Kelly, in 1960. At one point, the partners had an empire of five hardware stores; that was whittled down to two, including Suburban Hardware, in the 1980s.

Along the way, Ricklin’s picked up a dubious honor. The original two-story store burned down in 1939 and was replaced the following year with the current one-story structure. After a series of garages in the back were involved in another blaze in 1959,  the space was rebuilt as a free-standing extension of the store.

“So Ricklin’s had the two biggest fires in Narberth’s history,” Riddell said.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Jed Riddell, owner of Ricklin’s Hardware in Narberth, unwraps a bottle of champagne that a customer dropped off for the employees.

Struggle to stand out

Downtown Narberth is a Christmas-card town, set on a one-way street lined with colorful shops that are undergoing a transition. The owners of the most prominent outposts are aging, the hallmarks of previous generations fading away — Ricklin’s among them.

Ed Ridgway, president of the Narberth Business Association, said the overall health of Haverford Avenue is strong. One major property, which had housed the family-owned Mapes 5 & 10 since the 1960s, is being renovated into three smaller storefronts. The landlord, Ridgway said, has renters for all three shops.

“That’s going to be the only empty storefront on Haverford, since Ricklin’s isn’t empty yet,” he said. “On Haverford, we have a really good success rate of renting those out. When they come up, they go really fast.”

Mayor Andrea Deutsch, proprietor of Spot’s the Place for Paws for the last 15 years, said the changeover doesn’t worry her.

“I think it’s the ebb and flow of time,” she said. “You have to love retail, and it’s not what it used to be. Online shopping, and big-box shopping, there’s competition that wasn’t around 30 years ago. But you have to find a way to make yourself stand out in the crowd.”

For Jed Riddell, that struggle was draining.

“Buying a retail store is like buying a job,” he said. “You can never leave it.”