For almost 100 years, Heights Hardware draws customers with location and service

Founded in 1911, just eight years after Cleveland Heights was incorporated as a village, and ten years before it would become a city, Heights Hardware still occupies its original location, at 1792 Coventry Road.

Owner Tom Gathy credits that consistent location with much of his store’s success, and says, “I believe it is the oldest hardware store in the Cleveland area to still be in the same location.”

In its first century, Heights Hardware had just four owners, starting with the Weiskopf brothers. It has been a family business—albeit an extended one—since Gathy’s second cousin, Oscar Elton, purchased the store from the Weiskopfs, after returning from World War II.

Gathy and his son, Andy, cite their inventory and service, as well as location, as playing a large role in attracting and retaining customers. Andy states, “We are probably the oldest Benjamin Moore dealer in the Cleveland area. We repair and fabricate windows and screens, we custom cut glass and lumber, offer lamp repair service, and we still sell chain, rope, pipe and wire by the foot.”  

Gathy points out that many of their customers walk to the store; for those driving, there are two free 15-minute parking spots in front of the business. Andy adds, “A customer can come in here, and get what they need really fast. With the big stores, it can take a few minutes just to get in the door.”

Andy estimates, “We know 80 percent of the customers who come in. Even if we don’t know all the names, we recognize them.” 

Tom Gathy emigrated from Hungary in 1962 and, while still running his own remodeling business, purchased Heights Hardware from a distant cousin in 1979. Andy grew up in the business, joining his father full time in 1998, after graduating from Cleveland State University.

Inside the shop, history is evident in the original tin ceiling, weathered wood floors, and massive built-in oak cabinet that takes up much of one wall, its higher shelves still accessed by two original ladders that run along a rail. The back of the store opens into a bright addition, featuring an extensive stock of electrical, lighting and plumbing supplies.

Inventory reflects the needs of Heights residents, including what Gathy describes as “old-style screw-type fuses, and plumbing parts for repairing older systems.”

Heights Hardware will custom order for clients, and keeps many specialty items in stock for both commercial accounts and individual customers. “We have certain items that you can’t get anywhere else,“ Andy explains. “If we know someone will buy it, we’ll stock it. One customer drives from the West Side to buy a special rust remover, because she says we’re the only place in Cleveland that carries it.”

Like any small business, Heights Hardware has been impacted by both the current recession, and the influx of big box stores. In 1998, facing the prospect of competition from Home Depot and Walmart, Gathy made the decision to expand his business, building an addition to accommodate more inventory.

An independent store, Heights Hardware is affiliated with Ace Hardware, an independent dealer-owned cooperative, which warehouses about 80,000 items. This enables Gathy to keep prices competitive with larger chain stores.

In addition to four full-time employees, Gathy employs two part-time staff, both of whom have worked at the store longer than Gathy has owned it. Until 2003, another such employee was second owner Oscar Elton, who came out of retirement to work for Tom until he was in his 90s. Gathy recalls, “Oscar always told me what I needed to order, and used to say, ‘You can’t sell sugar from an empty shelf.’"

Gathy points out that many independent hardware stores, plumbing businesses and lumber stores went out of business when Home Depot and Walmart moved in, and says, “Expanding our inventory was the right thing to do.” His son Andy adds, “Every day, people come in and say they’re glad we’re still here. A hundred years later, it’s good to feel you had something to do with that.”

A former marketing professional, Kim Sergio Inglis recently relocated to Cleveland Heights from Brooklyn, NY.
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Volume 3, Issue 4, Posted 9:53 AM, 03.23.2010