Founded in 1796, Northampton’s Foster Farrar named oldest hardware store in US

  • Karel Rescia, co-owner of Foster Farrar, the oldest hardware store in the U.S., with an original apron. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Carol Rescia, co-owner of Foster Farrar, the oldest hardware store in the US, with an original apron. Behind her is Paul Czapienski, also a co owner. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul Czapienski, co-owner of Foster Farrar, which a national trade magazine dubbed the oldest hardware store in the U.S., at his desk in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Above, Mike Stack repairs a double-pane storm window at Foster Farrar. At right, Kevin Czapienski works in the lock shop. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Foster Farrar True Value on King Street in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kevin Czapienski works in the lock shop at Foster Farrar in Northampton on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jason Switzer, left, helps customer Mark Fowlkes of Northampton at Foster Farrar in Northampton on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Foster Farrar co-owner Karel Rescia brings her miniature schnauzer, Micro, to work each day and he gets the run of the Northampton store — but often just hangs out in the office. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kevin Czapienski works in the lock shop at Foster Farrar in Northampton on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 6/30/2019 11:55:09 PM

Tucked inside the main office at the Foster Farrar True Value hardware store are two yard sticks and an apron, all with the number 11 on them.

The number pays homage to the store’s first phone number.

“You would crank up the phone and ask the operator for exchange 11,” said Paul Czapienski, who co-owns the Northampton store with Karel Rescia.

The mementos are just a few of many examples of the longevity of a store that traces its roots to the late 18th century. The hardware store, located on King Street, has been around so long — since 1796 and counting — that a national trade publication for independent hardware stores recently named it as the oldest hardware store in America.

The Hardware Connection featured the store in its recent edition, noting that the next oldest hardware store is S.L. Wadsworth & Son in Eastport, Maine, founded in 1818. In that same issue, the magazine also featured the oldest lumber and building materials store in the country, Cowls Building Supply, of Amherst, founded in 1741.

A rich history

Samuel Clarke Jr. began the Northampton hardware store in 1796 as a blacksmith’s supply shop. In 1914, the business changed its name to the Foster Farrar Company, and for more than a century that name has been an indelible part of the community.

Rescia, 60, bought her share of the business from her father in the early 2000s, joining Czapienski, 62, who bought into the store in 1996 after working at a competing hardware store.

On the partnership, Rescia said, “For the most part, it works out very very well.”

Even before she was an owner, Rescia worked at the store, and she estimates that she has done so for 45 years.

Czapienski mainly works in the office, while Rescia chiefly works on the floor. Rescia said that her tasks range from waiting on customers to making paint to cleaning floors.

“Whatever’s needed, I’ll do,” she said.

As to why she doesn’t just stay in the office Rescia said, “I prefer people.”

In 1989, the store relocated from 160 Main St., which now houses the likes of Ted’s Boot Shop and Raven Used Books, to its current home on 145 King St. Both buildings are still owned by Rescia’s family.

Rescia says the most interesting part of having a business that’s been around for such a long time is when older people come in and talk about how they used to go into the Main Street store.

“It’s all nostalgia for me,” said Rescia. “Love it.”

Czapienski said that it was a surprise to them that they’d been named the oldest by Hardware Connection.

“Historywise it says a lot,” he said.

Czapienski also said that it says a lot about the community.

“They’re the ones that are keeping us here,” said Rescia.

Czapienski related how a woman from Cummington told them recently that she found an invoice from 1920 from Foster Farrar, and that she plans to drop it off the next time she shops at the store.

Czapienski praised the service provided by the store’s 16 employees, including the two owners.

“We don’t lose many people,” said Rescia. “We’ve got a lot of people that stay until they retire.”

Czapienski said that they try to treat every employee like a family member, and that they’ve made accommodations for employees when they’ve needed to take personal time.

“For some of our employees, we’ve gone above and beyond,” Czapienski said.

The store is currently affiliated with both the True Value and Orgill distributors. Between the two, Czapienski said that the hardware store has access to almost 130,000 items.

“We’re kind of 50/50 with them both,” he said.

Czapienski said that convenience is a big part of the company’s business model.

“If you need it now, chances are we probably have it,” he said.

“We just do everything instantly here as much as we possibly can,” said Rescia.

Both Rescia and Czapienski credited the move to King Street as being vital.

“There was no parking,” said Rescia, of the old location.

Expansion and retreat are other important elements of the store’s success.

In the 21st century, Foster Farrar has expanded into screen repair, lamp repair, safes and locks, with the locks portion of the business now particularly extensive.

At the same time, around the turn of the millennium in 2000, Foster Farrar got out of selling appliances, with Rescia saying that the store couldn’t compete with the prices of their competitors.

Foster Farrar’s biggest competition is still from box stores as opposed to the internet, the owners say.

Czapienski said that the store has a good relationship with contractors, and he said that the store’s biggest days of business are during the weekday.

“They know what they want. They know what’s good and what’s not,” said Rescia. “We try to make sure that we have what’s good for them.”

Czapienski said that there’s also been times when he has chosen not to put products on the floor because they are not of sufficient quality.

“I do not want to sell somebody junk,” he said.

Cowls honored

Asked about having Cowls Building Supply be named the oldest lumberyard store in America, Evan Jones, the company president, said via email, “As the ninth generation to lead this business, it was quite an honor. We do feel the continued pressure to constantly improve the family business which is always a challenge, but we always enjoy being recognized for it.”

And like Czapienski and Rescia, he gave credit to the area.

“The Amherst area does seem to be different than others in the way they all appreciate and support the local family-owned businesses,” Jones said. “People want a place where you get to know the people that work there and can rely on quality materials that will be backed by hundreds of years of experience.”

Jones also said that he has three children who grew up around the store, and expressed hope that at least one of them would come back to it.

“I am confident that the tenth generation will be leading the company before long,” he said.

Czapienski and Rescia said that they expected Foster Farrar to continue to be around long-term.

“This hardware store will live on for a really long time,” said Rescia. “Somewhere, it doesn’t matter where, as long as it lives on.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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