Shoppes at Farmer’s Hardware
Some places in downtown Boone are iconic and provide a link to the past. Think Boone Drug, Appalachian Twin Theater and Farmer’s Hardware. All three, which have been quintessential to downtown for decades, have had to adapt to the changes and pressures of technology and big-box stores. Farmer’s Hardware, which originally opened in 1924 as a hardware retailer, closed its doors in 2004, changed its business model and reopened the next summer as an eclectic emporium called The Shoppes at Farmer’s Hardware.
In 1924, Clyde Greene opened Farmer’s Hardware at the current Boone Bagelry location. Soon, Farmer’s moved to the corner of Depot and King streets, where it stands, albeit in a different form, today. It’s still a local, family business, though, with Greene’s descendents running the show and providing a 21st-century vision for Farmer’s.
The Shoppes at Farmer’s Hardware has more than 100 shops and features a wide variety of merchandise including jewelry, handbags, totes, footwear, apparel, baby gifts, handcrafts, framed art, home décor, furniture, toys, stringed instruments, kitchenware, birdfeeders and much more.
At The Crossroads:
How four generations of one Boone family have served the community, moved with the times, held onto tradition and preserved the face of the center of Boone.
(reprinted from High Country Magazine, October 2013)
By Bernadette Cahill
A visitor returning to town today after many years might stand at the intersection of King and Depot Streets and conclude that everything in the center of Boone is more or less the same as it always was. There’s the newish bench, of course, with the bronze of Doc Watson who passed last year. But apart from that, a cursory glance would give the impression that really, nothing much has changed over the years.
Such an impression is a measure of the success of one of the most significant evolutions in the last decade right in the heart of downtown: that of Farmers Hardware into the Shoppes at Farmers. This unique achievement is the story of how four generations of one local family have served the community, moved with the times, held onto tradition and preserved the face of Boone.
Yet in the summer of 2004, there was a huge gap in downtown. That March, the four-score-years-old business of Farmers Hardware & Supply Company Inc. had announced its closure and nothing was in place to take its place. And the question, even if unspoken, reverberated around town: would the future tear down the venerable red-brick Watauga County Bank and the Farmers Hardware buildings, changing the face of Boone forever? Who knew?
Encountering a Ghost
The Langdons, who owned Farmers Hardware, at that juncture couldn’t say what would happen. That disturbing scenario was hardly considered, but the family wasn’t sure which direction to take.
“[After closing] we were at a standstill, really,” said Jason Langdon. “We didn’t really know what we were going to do with it, but we wanted to hang onto it.”
It helped that some Boone businessmen were looking into renting.
“There was some interest in it before we even closed the doors,” said Jason. “Some guys in town. We talked with them, got them in here, walked around, but nothing really came of it.”
The nothing continued “for a few months” and with its doors locked, the building stood empty of the traditional inventory of guns, tools, cold shuts, sash pulleys, rope, washers, bolts, screws, nails by the half dozen or even singly if that’s what the customer wanted, while curious tourists who often dropped by to experience an authentic and rare old-fashioned mom-and-pop hardware store now encountered just a ghost. All the while, a huge question mark hung over the future of the oldest buildings at Boone’s central intersection.
The former employees had also gone and Jason, another of those who lost his job, was collecting unemployment and casting around for new work.
Meanwhile, his younger brother Brandon Langdon was helping in sales at Farmers Rentals & Power Equipment. Yet, the Farmers Hardware downtown store still called to him. It was “like a home,” he said, for he and his brother had grown up in the store and always worked summers there.
Inspiration From Behind
In the impasse, an enquiry about the building by an owner at the Wilcox Emporium on Howard Street helped to point the way.
“We got the idea of doing what they were doing on the back street in the Emporium, renting out the building space by space,” said Jason. Once inspiration had struck, “We came to the decision pretty quickly to do it.
“[But] I can’t remember the time frame. We were at my mom and dad’s house and Brandon was there too,” he recalled. “We have a friend in construction and we knew we could get the remodel pretty cheaply and we just decided to do it.
“My cousin helped. We were all in here cleaning and they were building walls and tearing downs walls at the same time. It was pretty light stuff, not real heavy-duty. It took a year, really to clean the place, to tear out the old carpeting on the stairs that was forty years old and stuff like that, but not too bad.”
“Jason began tearing out the old fixtures,” said Brandon. “He drew the partitions, and my mother [Terri Langdon] picked out the paint and the replica lights. The store was empty when I came to help prepare. All the old seventies metal fixtures were sold or thrown away except for the wormy chestnut bolt bin cabinet that still stands today. With a few months of the remodel left, I came over and started helping to paint and get the store ready.”
“It all happened within a year,” said Jason. “We opened within a year of the decision to do it.”
Today, brothers Jason and Brandon Langdon are owners of the Shoppes at Farmers, a business conceived it seems, in a flash. Yet their business model is a modern version of retailing which the family has operated now for nearly 90 years, and they are operating in the very same location where the family business has been based during most of that time.
The Most Stable Business
Farmers Hardware sold its first item of merchandise on December 24, 1924: a shotgun, retained for sentimental reasons after the original purchaser later traded it in, and today kept on display in the store.
“This building was built in 1922 for Boone Hardware Company,” said Cecil Greene – grandfather of Jason and Brandon Langdon – while sitting once more at the desk that used to be his own in the office that oversees the main sales floor. “My father, Clyde Greene, got a job keeping books here in 1923, but he had a falling out with the owner and then he and Russell Hodges, Cicero Greer and Wade McGee went into partnership and formed Farmers Hardware, locating it in a wooden building where Boone Bagelry now sits.
“It wasn’t a hard business to learn. He was raised on a farm and most everything they used on a farm was what the hardware store sold. They didn’t have much to sell back then except tools and plows and something to raise a crop with and hardware was the most stable business there was. Hardware stores rarely went out of business.”
After the Great Depression began in 1929 and credit got tight, in 1932 Boone Hardware failed, said Cecil. “My father and his partners were able to buy the real estate, inventory, everything. You couldn’t get loans from the bank, but they were able to buy because they had a good relationship with the hardware wholesaler, C.M. McClung & Company, of Knoxville, Tennessee, who gave them extended credit on inventory.”
The Role of the Wholesaler
Cecil was born in 1927. After World War Two, during which he received radio and radar training in the Navy Air Corps but was not sent abroad to serve because the war ended, he worked at Farmers Hardware for several years. Then, in 1953, C.M. McClung & Company offered him a job as a sales rep. He jumped at the chance and stayed with them until 1963.
“Back in those days, the hardware stores all over the country bought their supplies from a wholesaler. I represented the wholesaler and I lived here and travelled all the way to Winston-Salem and back. The book I had weighed sixty pounds and it had all we had to offer, pictures and price tag, and when I retired the management let me keep the book here and kept it updated until it went out of business in 1970 because we bought [inventory] from them.”
The Start of Something Good
Meanwhile, a new opportunity had come his way. Two of the other shareholders had already bowed out of the operation, while “the majority stockholder, Mr. Hodges, passed away in 1960 and his family in 1963 offered me his shares, with no down payment and I could make payments on it. I jumped at the chance,” Cecil said. “I wasn’t risking anything. I took over as manager of Farmers Hardware in December, 1963 and bought the Hodges’ shares.” The deal ensured that both he and his father each owned half the total shares. This was the start of something good for him.
“I was very fortunate,” Cecil said. “The town started really growing about that time, in the 1960s, with people coming up here to build summer homes, and ASU grew, so things picked up and I was able to pay off [the loan] in about 6 or 7 years. And my father, I bought his half in about 1977.”
In charge, Cecil retained the same kind of merchandise, raising some prices and lowering others. He also expanded, installing the stairs through the middle of the store to open the basement up to retail and new stock. Later, he incorporated the former barber shop premises under the bank. In 1976 he had a ski shop on the balcony moved up to the third level of the building and installed a freight elevator, replacing the old-fashioned method of hauling supplies up by rope. In 1983, he acquired the old Watauga County Bank and soon “had the doorway cut out and closed up the front door.”
Farmers now had gained its most unusual feature: the vault, a unique vendor booth today currently glittering with decorator lights. As a result of this acquisition, Farmers Hardware was able to expand the selection of housewares they had available for customers. Cecil’s daughter, Terri Langdon, worked on this project, and the increased inventory allowed the firm to make more high-end items available.
Farmers Hardware also began to spawn new operations. In 1965 Cecil and his father established Watauga Building Supply and in 1967, Cecil bought the old Boone Town Hall at auction for $18,000. In the mid-1970s, his architect son David renovated and expanded the 1914 building on the corner of Depot and Howard and the ski department moved, opening up there in 1976 as Farmers Ski Shop. In 1988, Farmers Rentals and Power Equipment, another entity under the Farmers Hardware and Supply Company Inc. name, opened on Highway 105. Different branches of Cecil’s extended family own and operate these businesses today.
With the acquisition of the old bank building, Farmers Hardware had reached the limits of potential expansion. At almost the same juncture, the anchor business of Boone’s central crossroads started to have to face up to a new hard business reality.
Farmers Hardware had always had staff serve the customers: self-service and offering more items than the customer wanted secure in bubble packaging was not its way. But, in modern times, this was costly. Also, the store was always known for its customer service, but unfortunately by now that didn’t pay either.
“Often people would come in with a faucet stem, needing a new washer. We’d put a new one on, but when they got to the cash register it was only 15 cents. When prices start to go up, you can’t do that anymore,” said Cecil.
But, he said, “The biggest thing against us was we didn’t have enough room to give the people [a wide] selection. Also, the college grew and parking became just about impossible.” And even though Farmers Hardware always had its rear parking lot, it was always packed, contractors couldn’t load and consequently couldn’t trade with them. Business was trickling away.
Yet another pressure was a new and increasing trend in the business.
“I’d say ninety to ninety-five percent of manufacturers all over America began selling to the big box people,” said Cecil, explaining that bigger hardware stores provide a greater selection at lower prices. “It took the business away from the independent stores, so today, all the mom and pop hardware stores, like this used to be, are gone.”
All Cecil’s children – Terri Langdon, David Greene, Jo Ann Phillips and Steven Greene – worked at Farmers Hardware from time to time. Terri and husband Bobby in particular enjoyed it, and they acquired it from Cecil in 1998. Cecil bowed out there in 2000, and several years later, with business falling off due to a combination of pressures such as national business trends and local parking problems, Terri and Bobby decided to close it down.
The Fourth Generation
Nowadays, Terri and Bobby’s sons, Jason and Brandon Langdon are the fourth generation of the family to do business at the King and Depot corner and they are proud of carrying the tradition on.
Today, fifty vendors’ booths in the store display a variety of goods and gifts from housewares to furniture, with jewelry and fashion items in between. During the remodeling, many vendors heard about it through colleagues and acquaintances.
Location, as always, matters. “The design of this business offers someone the opportunity to have a shop on King Street,” said Brandon. “A lot of Wilcox vendors heard what we were doing and they were actually in both places for two to three years before Wilcox finally closed.”
The Langdons retained many details of the old times in the new decor. Old fixtures still adorn the walls, while drawers stacked together and marked with the names of now-unknown pieces of hardware make funky modular display units. On shelves high up near the original pressed tin ceiling, bound volumes of sixty-year-old invoices hold the details of who bought what when at prices astoundingly low to 2013 eyes.
A couple of antiquated cash registers remind of yet another retail revolution, while a bookshelf of wholesalers’ volumes tucked in a corner holds pictures and prices of the nuts and bolts of the business as it was way back when. On the top floor, an exposed post that extends from the basement to the roof demonstrates not just the height, but the durability of the trees available for construction a century ago. And the pièce de resistance is something known only in an old building: a wonderfully loud, creaky, wooden floor.
An Ever-Changing Audience
Brandon enjoys watching the ever-changing customers at Shoppes at Farmers in this new era.
“The seasonal thing is very interesting. The Floridians, the regional day trippers in the summer, the leaf lookers in October and students and more local people around the holidays. We have an ever-changing audience here.”
“We are very happy with the results,” said Jason. “This spot couldn’t be any better to have this place. It was a good idea. The family owns the building. We don’t have any inventory to worry about. Just overhead and staff.”
In sum, the business has been a success, living up to expectations and supporting their families and the two or three part-time employees, said Brandon. But there’s more satisfaction than reaping the financial rewards.
“When the old business was closing down, it was sad,” Brandon said, “but to me it’s not about what we’re selling as much as retaining the building and still using it. That’s what I’m proud of too and proud that I’m a part of.”
“I can’t imagine what would be here if this building wasn’t, if this wasn’t a retail building,” said Jason. Today, “it has a bright future. It’s kind of immune to the economy. We have cheap gifts, you can browse if you want. There’s hand-made stuff. We have new vendors and fresh products all the time. It’s going to snowball. It already has. So we’re going to keep on doing what we’re doing into the future.”