The brick building stands in the center of town. A large sheet metal sign with green lettering tacked on the corner reads "Hardware". Just beside it is a greenhouse and some stacks of garden supplies. For the last 120 years, Renfrow Hardware has been an anchor in Matthews, North Carolina. It has seen the small farming community grow to the large and central Charlotte suburb that it is today. Standing here before electricity and the rise of automobiles, the hardware store has weathered the Great Depression and both World Wars. The business has changed with the town, adding and subtracting as the years went.
After seeing success in a local mining operation, Thomas Renfrow opened the Matthews storefront in 1900 adjacent to the railroad that ran through town. From Matthews, Renfrow could ship the cotton from his farm and the community up and down the east coast. Over the following century three generations of the Renfrow family operated the storefront - each leaving their mark on its rich history.
Today, the storefront is owned and operated by David Blackley and his team. On the day I stopped in David was holding his youngest granddaughter. “This is Rosalyn,” he said, “I’m just holding her so her mom can eat some lunch.” The store is quiet and the employees are gathered by the register talking about the day. David and I sit by the potbelly stove tucked between the seed counter and the shelves full of pumpkins. “It started out as a general store in a small town for farmers,” David begins, “there had to be some place where people could buy things that weren't produced on the farm. This town did not have much industry or manufacturing to speak of. It came out of the necessity - it happened to be here because the railroad was here.” In the early 20th century, the land surrounding Matthews was populated by cotton farmers and other agricultural operations. “It used to be people would only go to the general store and church, anything else would require traveling into Charlotte.” David explains. The town hardware store needed to be a place where the farmers could process their harvest and resupply with household goods for the coming season.
Renfrow’s Hardware, as a small business has evolved over the years. What once was the center of town and commerce, servicing the needs of farmers and townspeople, now operates as a modern hardware store that offers the wisdom of 120 years and the knowhow to get the job done. Sitting on the wooden bench, David tells me about all of the businesses that have lived within its walls. “This particular building and next door have been everything from selling model A’s and T’s, selling tractors, a cotton bale warehouse, all of which were part of the business. The far building has been rented out as a movie theater, a lawn mower repair shop, an auto body repair paint shop.” He continues, “Every time we rented to somebody we looked for businesses that were like minded, businesses that brought people to town and were mom and pop.”
During World War II, the US government purchased all the cotton Mecklenburg County and the state could grow. “Most of the store's male employees were drafted. So they had a hard time. The older men and the wives had to step in and work the store,” David remembers, “every farmer would be lined up all the way around the block with their wagons and it (cotton gin) ran day and night in the fall. So the store had to stay open all night because when the people came to get their money they would turn around and pay off their bills. There was a big settling up that happened every fall.”
"The majority of business in this country are small businesses."
David leans back in his chair and discusses the present, “The challenge these days is knowing what to carry, and more so now is even getting the product. So many good lines are disappearing, American manufacturers are disappearing. One of our best seed companies, who has been in business since I believe the 1830’s and who we’ve dealt with since 1920 are retiring this year.” David glances over to the rows of seed packets on a nearby counter, “retirement is taking its toll on vendors that serve small businesses.”
“Still,” David continues, “the majority of business in this country are small businesses. We are in a very good location and have a great customer base. We do a lot of work sharpening tools and making window screens so even when the store is closed we can use our talents and knowledge to make revenue.”
One of the ways Renfrow is currently engaging with the residents of Matthews is by offering classes and community events on their Matthews farm. “Four or five years ago we opened the Renfrow Farm,” David explains, “it’s on some land that many years ago was part of the store. Farmers markets are a new fad in the last 20 years - they died out in the 40’s. Amazon has not yet taken over wedding flowers or local honey. It certainly hasn’t taken away our knowledge that we’re selling. I love doing the farming, I love the solitude - I can work all day up there on a Sunday or Monday and get a lot done.” David’s daughter, Pressly, has taken charge of the farm in recent years, building up its flower business for weddings and events while managing the crops and functions held on the property.
Downtown Matthews, North Carolina
The hardware store is a staple of the American landscape. The seed counter and shelves full of bolts and engine oil are very familiar to their customers. It’s a way of life that changes with time, offering what is needed to the people who walk through the door while paying attention to how those needs change. As David and I sit in the store our conversation is regularly interrupted by customers and staff. David greets everyone as they come in, helping them find the particular grass seed for winter or guiding them to the correct hinge that is needed for the project at hand. When talking about the future of the hardware store David is keen, “Selling wisdom isn’t enough anymore - you just don’t know. I’ve learned over the years not to worry about the things I have no control over - but to try and be aware of the things I do have control over, but not worry about them - because worrying is a waste of energy.”
To learn more about Renfrow Hardware and the classes held on their farm please visit their website, www.Renfrowhardware.com