The Nuts And Bolts of Strosniders
How a neighborhood hardware store became one of Bethesda's most beloved-and successful-institutions
Saturday mornings are a busy time at Strosniders in Bethesda, and typically 40 employees are on the floor. Photos by Skip Brown
Seven years ago, on Al Farber’s first day of work at the Strosniders Hardware store in Bethesda, a woman shopper asked him for a cattle prod. The store’s advertising slogan is, “If we don’t have it, you probably don’t need it!” Farber knew they didn’t have the item and confesses, “I couldn’t force myself to ask about the need.”
Strosniders doesn’t sell crab pots, either, but when a customer told housewares buyer Kathy Birenbaum in 2008 that she needed one to give as a wedding present, Birenbaum bought one near her home on Kent Island and brought it to the store.
It may seem odd that anyone would expect a hardware store to sell a cattle prod or a crab pot, but Strosniders is not your typical hardware store. Lightbulbs, screws, batteries, grill planks, propane tanks, dog leashes, cleaning fluids—Strosniders on Arlington Road is at once an emporium of the essential, a warehouse of want, and a depot of DIY. Its shelves carry 55,000 different SKUs (stock keeping units), items you need and many things you do not, but buy anyway.
General Manager Bill Hart III says the Bethesda store is the highest grossing independent hardware store of its size in the United States. Though corporate affiliate Ace Hardware is reluctant to divulge sales figures, Whitney Daulton, spokesperson for the North American Retail Hardware Association (NRHA), doesn’t contest the claim, adding that the store “has been an industry leader in the independent channel for a number of years.”
Eric Pierotti assists a customer in faucets. Photos by Skip Brown
Strosniders owes its success, at least in part, to the demise of Hechinger’s, a local home improvement store chain, in 1999 and the impersonality of big box stores such as The Home Depot. Though Strosniders rarely boasts the lowest prices, it has a more valuable asset: legendary service in the form of a small army of red-vested employees who are schooled in the intricacies of plumbing, electrical wiring, gardening, painting and the other dark arts of home improvement. “In my department alone, I have two guys who were plumbers, a handyman, a woodworker and one who owned a hardware store,” says hardware manager Jim Lovaas, an employee since 1994.
On a busy weekend, Strosniders in Bethesda will typically have 40 or so red vests working the 10,000-square-foot retail space—an employee for every 250 square feet. Many among the 80-member staff have graying hair; most have long experience in the trade. All new hires take the NRHA’s Advanced Course in Hardware Retailing, but the real test is learning where every product in the store is located—a process that may take years.
Founded in 1953, the store has become a neighborhood gathering spot. The aisles may be numbered and labeled with their wares, but in every one you can find the same thing: conversation. Assistant manager Jim Beckett, a fixture for 35 years, says customers often seek him out to discuss personal problems, including marital and health issues. “I listen, and then I say, ‘That will be $39.99,’ ” he says with a laugh.
Bill Hart III took over as general manager of Strosniders when his father retired eight years ago. Photos by Skip Brown
Lots of well-known locals—from sportscaster James Brown to Chief Justice John Roberts—frequent the Bethesda store. The Real Housewives of Potomac TV show filmed a segment in the store last spring with star Gizelle Bryant, who came in with her father. Jamie Dornan of the film Fifty Shades of Grey dropped by when he was visiting a friend.
Customers say that what distinguishes Strosniders is the staff’s willingness to tackle any request. Recently, a homeowner came in complaining about a toilet problem, but no one on the staff could understand his description of the issue. The man returned the next day with the entire toilet in his truck bed. The staff went to work, fixing the problem right there. Farber recalls a woman who came in three years ago with her grandson, who wanted to be a robot for Halloween. Farber led them through every department, picking up costume pieces as they went—pipes, silver duct tape, knobs—until the outfit was assembled.
Occasionally, the services rendered are especially offbeat. About three years ago, Chevy Chase artist Kathryn Freeman parked her Subaru at the store and accidentally locked the car with the engine running, the windows up and her dog, Remy, inside. Horrified, Freeman raced into the store and whispered her dilemma to a salesman because, she says, “I was so embarrassed.” He pulled a few items from the shelves, unlocked the car door and freed the pooch.
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Bruce Milner working in the key shop. Photos by Skip Brown
Kendrick, a rural town in central Oklahoma, was home to just over 200 souls when Walter Strosnider, the first of eight children, was born in 1913. His father ran a general store, but it wasn’t enough to keep Walter there, so he left in 1938 for better job opportunities in Washington, D.C. After a stint in a butcher shop, Strosnider, joined by his father and one of his brothers, opened a hardware store in Silver Spring. The siblings had a falling out, so Walter opened his own business on April 2, 1953, in a new strip mall on Arlington Road, occupying the space that’s now home to Bradley Food & Beverage.