NEWTOWN BOROUGH >> The sidewalk in front of the Newtown Hardware House bustled with excitement on a busy Market Day as the store celebrated its 150th year in business.
Using a coping saw, store owner Bill Newell smiled broadly as he officially sliced the first piece of vanilla and chocolate birthday cake as applause filled the air.
A line was soon forming as Hardware House volunteer marketing director Christine Edmonds took over cake duty and started handing out slices to appreciative customers.
Customers also enjoyed complimentary root beer floats, made with Newtown’s own Goodnoe ice cream, and refreshing lemonade, which they drank while browsing through tables filled with Hardware House merchandise.
“When you think about it, it’s pretty incredible that our little business is older than most of the companies on the Fortune 500, including General Electric, AT&T and all the car companies,” said Newell. “Most businesses don’t survive for this many years and we’re determined to keep it going by keeping it relevant and finding niches so that people want to come here and shop. We’re finding our way, but it’s tough.”
Bill and his wife, Peggy, took over the business in 2011 from beloved town historian Dave Callahan who operated the business for nearly 30 years.
Callahan, who was busy at the nearby Market Day celebration on Court Street, made it a point of stopping by the Hardware House to wish the Newell’s continued success. He posed for a photo with Bill beneath a banner announcing the store’s milestone birthday.
Earlier in the day, State Senator Steve Santarsiero, State Rep. Perry Warren and Newtown Borough Mayor Charles “Corky” Swartz stopped by to deliver proclamations and resolutions to the Newell’s honoring the milestone.
“It’s great to see everyone turn out today,” said Newell. “It makes us understand that the community appreciates these old places and there’s still a place for traditional retail because, let’s face it, you can get 90 percent of what we carry on Amazon. So it’s very rewarding to see this.”
Newell credits the store’s longevity to its ability to evolve and adjust to the changing times. He also points to the store’s old-fashioned “experiential” atmosphere for attracting younger shoppers
“There was a time where the 7-11 just down the street was a cow field,” said Newell. “It was Newtown and that was it. In those days, the store carried farm tools and had an elevator to bring down fence posts, barbed wire and hay from upstairs. Obviously that’s no longer needed. We morphed into a conventional hardware store. And we’re always going to be a hardware store, but we’re doing different stuff too - some gifts, some food, some novelty toys - merchandise that’s unique.”
Among its most successful additions has been its Newtown-related merchandise, including hats, glasses, cups, t-shirts and more, all emblazoned with the Newtown name and the Newtown Hardware House initials.
“We’ve made a decent business branding the town, the store and its people,” said Newell. “When people are visiting town and they want a memento of their trip they know to come to the Hardware House.”
Newell’s message to his Hardware House customers and to the greater Newtown community is simple.
“We are happy that they are supporting us, but we want to be relevant and we want to carry the things they want and need,” said Newell.
“We don’t expect anyone to fall on a sword here,” Newell continued. “I only ask that people give us a try. We work really hard to keep our prices competitive and to create a product offering that’s unique.”
Newtown Hardware House has been in continuous operation since 1869, giving it the distinction of having the longest tenure of any business in Newtown.
The original store was built at 106-108 South State Street in 1869, the year Ulysses S. Grant was sworn in as the 18th President of the United States and the same year the HJ Heinz Company and Purdue University were founded and the "golden spike" was driven marking the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroadin Promontory, Utah.
Cyrus Hillborn and Harrison C. Worstall operated a hardware store at 106 South State and George E. Dolton ran a dry goods store at 108.
In one of the worst fires in Newtown history, 39 years after it was built fire destroyed the original Newtown Hardware House on March 4, 1899. It is thought that burglars caused the fire.
Today, when looking at the rear wall, lower left (Northern) portion of the structure, a distinct brick line exists that outlines surviving brickwork dating from before the fire in 1899.
The building was rebuilt to the exact specifications of the original building and was reopened by Christmas of the same year and remains in operation to this day.
Shortly after the turn of the century, in 1908 Dolton sold his side to George H. McMaster. And when McMaster died in 1927, both sides of the store were taken over by H.C. Worstall, and later bought out by John J. Burns. When Burns died in 1955, Robert M. Davis bought the business and operated it until 1985, the year it was taken over by C. David Callahan.
In 2012, facing dwindling sales and a difficult economic environment, Callahan launched a campaign to save the Hardware House from closing. Bumper stickers touting the words “Save the Hardware House” circulated throughout the community and publicized the plight of the store.
In April, a “cash mob” descended on the store, spurred by a Facebook message posted by customer Andy Smith, who encouraged people to show up, “en masse,” to give the business “a bit of an economic boost.”
And show up they did. Customers swamped the store as employees rang up sale after sale, from grass seed, tools and paint to light bulbs and nails during a busy morning at the store.
It wasn’t enough on its own to save the Newtown icon, but it sent a clear, heartfelt message of support to Callahan and his staff who were touched by the community response.
Just hours before the store was to close, longtime customer William Newell of Newtown stepped in and saved the business from closure. He has since diversified the store’s selection of merchandise while remaining true to its roots as a hardware store.