By Gretchen McKay

Ohio hardware store owner hammers out prosperous life

Categories : Features , Travel

KIDRON, Ohio — To the scores of tourists who travel to the sprawling but somehow-still-charming hardware store that put this tiny farming community on the map a half-century ago, Jay Lehman is a local version of Bill Gates, an astute businessman who grew a tiny niche market into a global enterprise.

Jay Lehman founded his hardware store in Kidron, Ohio, in 1955 to serve a local Amish population. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

The rural store that bears his name has gone from serving a few hundred locals each year to one that peddles its old-fashioned wares (some authentic, others reproductions) to hundreds of thousands of customers in more than 200 countries.

Half a million do their shopping each year in person, pairing a trip down hardware’s Memory Lane with a visit to Ohio’s Amish country. (The store is busiest during the fall and Christmas shopping seasons.) Others boost company sales through its 170-page catalog or extensive Web site, which features a toll-free 24-hour order line. Orders have been sent as far as Tibet.

Yet the plain-living Amish who travel there by buggy in search of things no one else sells in person — a wood-burning cookstove or hand-crank mixer, perhaps, or a rebuilt Maytag wringer washer that runs on gasoline — probably have a different view of Mr. Lehman: that of a savior.

Had he not bought the 30-by-40-foot hardware store perched at a crossroad in the center of town back in 1955, many of the items they need to live off the grid might likely have vanished. Nor would some of them have jobs. It’s gotten awfully tough in these parts to make a full-time living off the land, so a growing number of Amish are turning to cottage industries such as furniture making and arts and crafts for their livelihoods. Lehman’s Hardware sells the fruits of their labor to other Amish, tourists and non-Amish locals.

“Even if they can’t farm, they want to live on the farm,” Mr. Lehman softly explains.

That said, the Amish today account for just 10 percent of his business. Replacing them at Lehman’s cash registers are nostalgia buffs and hobbyists, along with environmentalists looking for sustainable products and missionaries and homesteaders in search of appliances and other household items that don’t rely on power (composting toilets are suddenly hot).

The rich and famous also have come calling. So has Hollywood. Rachael Ray, Paula Deen and Martha Stewart are just a few of the celebrities who’ve bought from Lehman’s and its product has been featured in films as varying as “The Patriot” and “Cold Mountain” to “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Mystic River.”

“It’s a happy place,” says Mr. Lehman. “People like the atmosphere.”

Pulling anecdotes from this modest, unassuming King of Hardware is kind of like yanking a 31/2-inch nail out of petrified wood. But Mr. Lehman tells a funny story about his first brush with Tinseltown in the mid ’90s. Out of the blue, he recounts in his vaguely German accent, a producer in Miami called looking for some old-fashioned oil lamps. And he needed them that very day!

Accustomed to the simple life, Mr. Lehman couldn’t fathom how that might happen. But the voice from afar was persistent. Drive the lamps an hour north to the Cleveland airport, it cajoled, and then knock on a certain door inside the terminal. Someone on the other side would take care of the delivery. Well, if you say so … .

“So I took them myself,” he says. He pauses, the slightest of smiles creeping across his face. “I do a lot of work myself.”

Needless to say, the lamps arrived in Florida in time for the evening shoot.

“I couldn’t believe someone would pay me to do that,” Mr. Lehman says, a touch of awe tinging his voice.

The rest, as they say, is hardware history.

Mr. Fix-it

A devoted Mennonite who still lives on the farm he grew up on (although in a new house), Mr. Lehman, who recently turned 80, is as surprised as anyone at his store’s success; he was always more interested in the hands-on “fixing” aspect of the business. That’s why he became a mechanic at age 17 for a local garage instead of following in his father’s footsteps as a farmer.

“I didn’t want to get up early in the morning and milk cows,” he explains, laughing.

Not that he was afraid of hard work: At 20, Mr. Lehman left Ohio for Frankfurt, Germany, where as a missionary with his church he helped build homes for refugees under the Mennonite Central Committee-run PAX program.

His return to Kidron three years later found him out of a job. The two-room country hardware store up for sale at the corner of Kidron and Emerson roads, though, promised a new start. Or, as Mr. Lehman, who ended up buying it for $30,000 on his father’s signature, recalls: “I thought it’d be interesting.”

Lehman's Hardware in Kidron carries a variety of merchandise including haberdashery display. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

It might appear a leap of faith to so drastically change careers. But back then, he says, every small town had a bustling hardware store. Thanks to a Thursday livestock auction in a barn across the street (Ohio’s oldest) his store just happened to come with a predominantly Amish customer base — a segment of the population with whom he shared many beliefs and a similar plain way of life. (Amish tend to be more conservative and less tolerant of technology; as Mennonites, the Lehmans can drive and use electricity.)

“When someone in a suit came in, we’d wonder, ‘What’s he doing here?’ ” he says, chuckling.

Mr. Lehman assumed he’d be a “small-time hardware guy” the rest of his life — especially because a second, three-year Mennonite Central Committee assignment in 1961 with his first wife, Ella Mae, that took him to The Congo and Kenya, where he made travel arrangements for missionaries, stretched to 13 years. (His father and brother operated the hardware store in his absence.) And indeed, he could have been perfectly content serving those living beyond the reaches of electricity, including the missionary community he’d come to know so well.

Then came the Arab oil embargo, and Mr. Lehman’s natural entrepreneurial skills took flight.

Back in the late ’70s, there were still Amish who insisted on plain-black cast-iron wood stoves, which the hardware store bought 60 at a time. When word got out about this alternative energy source, a supply of Warm Morning stoves that should have lasted three years sold in fewer than three months. And because he had an “in” with the supplier, Mr. Lehman got preference over the Johnny-come-lately stores that hoped to bring these sought-after appliances to market.

At the same time, his missionary customers started asking for more of the hand grinders and gas refrigerators touted on brochures, jump-starting the store’s popular catalog division in 1979.

“It just mushroomed,” says Mr. Lehman. “After that, it was like, ‘What else have you got?’ ”

The Year 2000 scare spurred a similar craze toward self sufficiency. Mr. Lehman recalls a phone call during a dinner in Greece in 1999 informing him “this Y2K thing”– he didn’t even know what it was — was “getting big.” Talk about understatements: So many searched the store for products that would allow them to survive a technological meltdown that it eventually had to bring on 30 additional workers. It still employs more than 100 people — 10 percent of whom are Amish or Mennonite.

The latest boom is people who want to grow and prepare their own food, and those who have tired of a throwaway society.

Serving the underserved might make Mr. Lehman seem altruistic. But ultimately, he says, it’s also good business. “I was good at adapting.”

Big business

Today, Lehman’s is the go-to place for what daughter Glenda Lehman Ervin calls “the serious and the curious.” Mrs. Lehman Ervin, 46, became the marketing director in 1997 and her oldest brother, Galen, took over as company president in 2002; two other children are not involved in day-to-day operations.

Consider it a low-tech version of Lowe’s. At least six additions over the years have increased its retail space to more than 30,000 square feet, which is carefully carved into more than 10 departments. Its cash registers, for instance, are in a hand-hewn barn dating to 1849 that was salvaged in nearby Orrville and reassembled on site three years ago. It includes Amish-made rocking chairs for the weary.

Given his healthy sales and cult status — with his silver beard and short-sleeved denim shirt with the word “Jay” stitched in yellow on the left breast, he looks right out of Central Casting — you couldn’t blame Mr. Lehman if he took himself too seriously. (His daughter has installed cardboard “Flat Dads” all over the store, and his grandfathery mug also is on the old-fashioned sodas sold in the cafe.)

But his Mennonite roots dig deep. While he enjoys the social interaction that goes hand in hand with being a proprietor in a small town, he’s “not so much a people person.” It’s more, he insists with a wave of the hand, about the old-fashioned machines his talented hands still collect and meticulously repair (some of it’s traded in) and then exhibit in the store.

Occasionally, he’ll sell one of those museum-quality antiques. But most are for decoration, a gentle reminder of what used to be for future generations. Product is displayed in old wringer washer tubs; an 1883 jail cell from Somerset offers seating in the 2-year-old Cast Iron Cafe. The face on a Sohio gas pump is frozen in time at 1968 prices: a mere 26 cents per gallon.

Some of the stuff he hasn’t a clue as to its use, like a wooden thingamajig — is it a chestnut roaster? — screwed to one of the barn’s beams. But he displays it anyway.

“That’s just so Dad,” says Mrs. Lehman Ervin, about these blasts from the past.

Semi-retired since Ella Mae died about 10 years ago, after 41 years of marriage, Mr. Lehman comes in late and leaves early, always in his denim uniform and always on the lookout for the next big thing. That leaves more time for tennis (remarkably spry for his age, he still plays every Friday), travel with his second wife, Emma, whom he married in 2001, and planting trees (30,000 in the past 20 years). And the octogenarian still maintains an office — actually, it’s just a corner desk with a view of the parking lot.

“I’m having too much fun,” he says.