It's popular enough to be busy, busy enough to expand, stocked enough to be cluttered, and cluttered enough to be quaint. It is Joseph Finkle & Son hardware store, which locals describe in terms such as "legendary," "charming," and "eccentric." In an age when hardware stores are declining in number (according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States), the Coryell Street business, a full supplier of electrical and plumbing epuipment, shows no signs of succumbing to larger competitors. "Our industry has changed significantly with the advent of "boxes" like Home Depot," said Rachel Finkle, vice president of the hardware store her grandfather started here in 1920. "That's exactly what they are, boxes, with everything under one roof." Having things under one roof, for all its convenience, is not only something the 31-year-old Ms. Finkle is three roofs past experiencing, but something she cheerfully accepts. "Only the main store is open to roam around in," she explained. "You have to get a key for the other buildings, but that's the charm of it."
Sure, she acknowledged, the meter attendants in Lambertville are aggressive and it would be nice to have a big parking lot, but a change of facilities would involve a change of identity, a loss of familial roots. Besides, relocating is too akin to betrayal: old timers may not be able to visit a new site, Pennsylvania customers may feel distanced. "We expanded by buying up buildings that became available on our street," said Ms. Finkle. "But it's a very convenient in-town location for both New Jersey and Pennsylvania residents. We have about a 50-mile radius for our customer base." Surprisingly, the four buildings which make up Finkle's --the main store, the light fixture and office building, the old Strand theater, the warehouse --total over 37,000 square feet. Ms. Finkle, whose father worked at the store until his death at age 82 in 1994, worked summers at the family business growing up. After graduating from Columbia University, where she majored in East Asian studies, she finished one semester of graduate school before deciding to enter the business world, working two years as a music promoter for Sony Music. "Corporate America was somewhat disillusioning," she reflected, describing her decision to return to Lambertville from New York City. "I came back in 1991, and that was really when our industry was incredibly depressed, due to the recession combined with a lot of new competition. "But I think the impact of the big boxes has reached a plateau. People have realized that these stores really have some shortcomings." These shortcomings --sales help with limited knowledge and an if-it's-not-on-the-shelf-we-can't-get-it attitude-- are the things Finkle's seems to effortlessly avoid. "We gladly do a lot of special ordering," said Ms. Finkle, standing next to a large whirlpool tub ordered for a customer. "We go the extra mile, researching and ordering all kinds of crazy items people request."
Hard-to-find products abound at the store, making it a veritable oasis for contractor and do-it-yourselfer alike. An unusual product mix includes reproduction era hardware (the store carries 10 different styles of shutter hinges), 400 amp service wire, and structural steel, "a combination that no one else has," said Ms. Finkle. Of the 20 or so employees at Finkle's, she noted, "we have at least three or four who have worked for us for over 20 years." The attention customers receive at Finkle's is famous. To be sure, patrons must take a number upon entering the store, but it's what happens once your number is called that keep people coming back. Whether you need an enormous spool of electrical wire or a tiny screw, an employee will accompany you on the hunt through the cavernous main building, which has been added on to twice. Those interested in products ranging from sinks and rubber boots to large shop tools and coffee makers are escorted across the street to the other buildings. "Where else can you go to get an explosion-proof mailbox?" sad Ms. Finkle. "People come in here with some big problems, and I enjoy helping them find things or straighten things out." While a computer system is up and running in the back office, she intends to computerize the business further to track inventory and speed up the check-out process. This enthusiasm --to serve her customers better-- must remind some patrons of her father, whose portrait, along with his father's, hangs on the wall behing the counter. "My father was totally devoted," recalled Ms. Finkle. "He liked nothing more than to get up early and come in to work all day and return after dinner to do paperwork for a few hours. He double-checked the math on everything and loved to help people get what they needed. "He died of a heart attack on his way to work." If Ms. Finkle said that she and her employees are "very family-based," the observation applies no less to many of her customers.
"I like the familiarity. I'm on a first name basis with several hundred people in my community," she commented. "There are people who are in their 50's who say, 'I remember coming here as a kid. I remember your grandfather.'" Her grandfather, Joseph Finkle, immigrated to the states from Russia in 1898 and worked as a peddler before starting a scrap business in Lambertville a few years later.