February 23-March 1, 2006
cover storyLee's Hardware
Tucked in the back of a space not much bigger than a one-bedroom Center City apartment sits Scott Becker, a pissed-off hardware shop owner. He's taking and making phone calls in a gruff, Philadelphian tongue. The tufts of his hair are dark underneath his Adidas hat and he has a fit physique. Yet, the way the jaded fortysomething owner of Lee's Hardware (266 S. 20th St., 215-732-1244) speaks makes him seem years older than his appearance suggests. "Years ago, the store was a mob. The whole counter would be piled up with $100 sales. The line went all the way to the back of the store," he says. "The neighborhood doesn't support the store anymore. The people who used to buy from us are dead by now."
Becker's father bought the tiny Rittenhouse shop near 20th and Spruce in 1983 and Becker has worked there for 15 years. A dizzying number of products envelop the entire store, from floor to ceiling. All that's bare is the worn-out linoleum beneath my feet. From mouse traps to lightbulbs to toaster ovens, the store keeps an eclectic collection of supplies.
"We had a snowstorm the other day no one came in for shovels or salt," he says shaking his head. Becker complains about competing with major chain stores such as Home Depot and CVS.
"The Home Depot's bathroom is bigger than my store," he bemoans. At the same time he insists that his prices are much lower than his big-box competition. "Anything you'd run to Home Depot for we've got here," he says, adding that he does custom, such as fixing window screens, tabletop glass and vacuum cleaners: "I can do pretty much anything within reason. But they [customers] buy all their stupid vacuum cleaners from other places and when they break, they bring them here. It's a pain in the ass fixing vacuum cleaners."
At one point, Becker leaves to go check his parking meter. "This is the last of these types of businesses," he said. "It's hard to stay in business when the city makes it so difficult with taxes." He handed me a $25 ticket he got for putting out his garbage on the street too early. "I just want to close up so I don't have to pay the damn taxes," he said. "Am I painting a rosy picture for ya?"
Becker sort of blames himself for his dwindling clientele. "I don't have any good marketing," he says, then, half-jokingly asks if I want a part-time job as a marketer or if I know anyone who does. His profits, he says, do not really come from the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, but the major business buildings, apartments and hotels in Center City. He sells wholesale plumbing and electrical products to them.
"The problem is, physically, I have a small space. It's hard to sell when people don't know what you have."
At one point, the entire neighborhood seems to start pouring through the front door. "You're gonna have to change your whole article now. The neighborhood mob is coming in," he says with a slight smile.
He hands me a 2004 fall catalog featuring products from his store. "Here. You can use it as birdcage liner."