The store is cramped and brimming with supplies. People file in and out as the hunter green screen door thwacks shut, one after the other, searching for nuts and bolts, hose attachments, bags of dirt, fishing bait and fishing licenses – if they wanted they could also pick up a hat, retro candy, sunglasses, a shower curtain, silverware, a skillet, and some friendly neighborhood chatter – all at the local hardware store.
“That was the main idea when they bought the store, if you needed it you would be able to find it here,” said Sheila Schmidt, who works with and is a long time friend of owner Cindy Anderton.
Optimistically a living icon of Americana, but more and more often a relic of the past, mom and pop hardware store Millington Hardware has sat on quaint Cyprus Street in Millington, Maryland, for nearly a century. Built in 1920 after a great fire swept through the town, the Hardware Store has undergone many owners and many incarnations.
Steve and Cindy Anderton moved to Millington from New York (“He wanted to live by the ocean, I wanted to live by cornfields, and so we ended up on the Eastern Shore”) in 1983 and bought the business in 2000. At this point the Andertons had years of connections with the store and its various owners, “Every time it came around for sale we thought, ‘Hmm, that would be nice,” Cindy Anderton said.
The Andertons were not naïve to the challenges of owning a small, local, specialized business in the big box store era. Millington is a quick 20-minute drive from not one, but two Walmart Supercenters, a Lowes and a Home Depot.
“When we first bought the store we kind of decided that there was no way to compete with anybody,” Anderton said, “And so you go with quality and you go for price, there’s not much that we have that’s over $20, because if its over $20 then its worth travelling or looking around for.”
And it’s not just the big box stores that threaten small town business, “The problem is retailing against the internet…people can go order stuff on the internet for the same price that I can buy it,” Anderton said. “We were more worried about the Food Lion rather than the Walmart, we were afraid people would go to Food Lion and skip town which would hurt business,” Schmidt said, “but to be honest our business is doing very well.”
Anderton attributes much of the business’ success to their favorable circumstances, “What I don’t think people realize is that Steve and Cindy don’t cut themselves a paycheck very often,” Schmidt said, Anderton agrees laughing “Yes we could fire all the employees and take a lot more money out of the store, but we’re in a position where we don’t have to do that, so we don’t.”
The Anderton’s financial independence from the stores income, as well as the fact that they do not have a mortgage because they bought the business outright, has contributed to the stores success. “Most of the money that’s made is invested back into the store and our inventory, the reason I think this store works so well is because Steve and Cindy own it,” Schmidt said.
But success is not just a product of money; Millington Hardware offers something to customers that they value above the convenience, ease, or price of a Walmart or Lowes—community. “This is not your typically run business, this is a business for the town of Millington, for the people, it’s less about getting rich and more about providing a service for a community,” Schmidt said.
“If Steve and Cindy know somebody needs something, if you don’t have enough money for it, if somebody comes in here with five dollars and their bill is seven we say go. Just bring it back when you can. You can’t go to Lowes or Walmart and do that,” Schmidt said. One customer came in two years later to pay back the store, and “We had one guy who owed us money who went to jail and paid us back when he got out!” Anderton said.
The Andertons and their employees go out of their way to get customers what they need, “If somebody calls at 6 p.m. and they need something, we’ll wait for them,” Schmidt said. Anderton recalls once getting a phone call from a frantic woman who desperately needed a strand of Christmas lights for a party, “We had already closed and she said ‘It’s okay, I’ll come pick up the key, you don’t have to go back to the hardware store!’ and she did!”
At Christmas they sing carols outside the store, “we have cookies, we have customer appreciation day and we stand outside in the freezing cold and we sing, and people look at us like we’re crazy, but you know what the group is getting bigger every year,” Schmidt said.
They hold a competition for most receipts at Christmas also, where customers bring in all their receipts from purchases made in Millington for the holidays and whoever racks up the most receipts wins $100. “The competition among neighbors is the funniest part—people come running in at five or six to add two more receipts to their pile, or try to look over and see how they stack up.”
They hold their annual “Perchapalooza,” a competition to see who can catch the longest perch, and post the winners on their website and Facebook. Most recently the Hardware Store has become involved in the local farmers market, bringing vendors in and helping sell products.
“What we try to do is have what people need when they’re in the middle of a job and they don’t want to drive to Middletown,” Anderton said, “If you’ve got what they need they’ll just love you to death, and they’re very supportive, a lot of people are very supportive—you just try to have what the people want.” Schmidt adds, “and the fact is that people will come here first to make sure that we don’t have what they need because they would rather come here than go somewhere else.”
In return Millington Hardware gets loyalty and mutual respect, “Our customers are incredibly loyal,” Anderton said. One time an employee who closed for the night forgot to bring plants in from the front of the store, so a customer checked throughout the night to make sure they weren’t stolen. Another day, Schmidt was held up and could not come in, so customers came to help Anderton bring in the same plants. Another morning it snowed and as Schmidt was about to start shoveling the sidewalk a customer took the shovel from her hand and got to work.
“I think that’s the whole basis, it’s a family, everybody knows us, we know everybody, the customers are important to us and we’re important to them,” Schmidt said.