If you want to meet people who are looking for something, you can find them at Moorestown Hardware. It’s the place they usually find what they’re looking for, too.
“I love hearing, ‘I can’t believe you have this,’” said Pete Bender, who with his wife and business partner, Julie, bought the Moorestown, NJ store in 2001. Housed in a rustic former lumberyard that dates from 1879, their business is a local landmark, as well as a destination. Like a town square that sells tools.
“People come in here because they have a problem, or a question,” Pete, 61, said. “We want to give them a solution.”
There are answers galore on Google, and plenty of places in South Jersey to find nuts and bolts, bird seed, and high-tech barbecue grills, or even butcher’s twine, cricket traps, and starter handles for lawnmowers.
But mega-stores aren’t likely to be community institutions, let alone the sort of place where everybody knows your name, or at least your face. Even if you’re wearing a mask, which almost all customers do without complaint.
“I hate to be a referee,” said Pete.
Moorestown Hardware was an essential part of life in and around this Burlington County township of 20,000 long before hardware stores large and small were declared essential, due to the pandemic. But big-box retailers are rarely run by mom-and-pop proprietors like the Benders, who both grew up in Moorestown and live six blocks from the store. Their son, Pete Jr., works there, too.
“I always liked the idea of owning my own business,” said Pete, pausing to chat during a busy weekday afternoon. “But there are days when I get pulled in so many directions, I’m like a piece of taffy.”
Pete Jr. was among the crew behind the counter, Julie was working the sales floor, and the bells at the entrances jingle-jingled merrily, as well as incessantly.
“Do you have concrete stain?” a man asked, as Pete politely and deftly shifted his attention from a reporter to a customer.
“We do have some left,” he said. “Aisle five, bottom shelf.”
There are 16 aisles and 10,000 square feet of wooden floorboards inside Moorestown Hardware. The number of steps recorded by the fitness watches Pete and Julie wear sometimes hit 18,000. The store is open daily until 6 PM, and 65-hour work weeks are not uncommon, especially around the holidays and even more so since the coronavirus erupted in March.
Pete said the store converted 10 feet of shelf space to Covid-related supplies and had a second land line installed to handle calls from frightened customers, many of them elderly. He and Julie dislike having people wait in line, but social distancing has required setting up an aisle for queuing.
But the store’s diverse and personable crew of nine workers, most of them young locals, has risen to the occasion, Julie said. One employee quickly became an expert on masks, while others using smart phones acted as virtual personal shoppers for customers who needed help selecting merchandise for curbside pickup.
“We were getting 30 to 40 call-in orders a day,” Julie, 60, said. “People were saying, ‘I don’t want to leave my house.’ Or they were in a panic because they couldn’t find any cleaning products.”
For years, Julie had worked as a buyer at the beloved Peter Pan Gifts on Main Street in Moorestown, which went out of business in 2016 after nearly 50 years. The puzzle section of the ‘gift store within a store’ of which she is creator and curator at Moorestown Hardware became a lifeline for homebound families early in the pandemic.
“We would facetime with them to pick out puzzles,” Julie said. “Sometimes we laid boxes of puzzles out on the floor to help them choose.
“At one point there was a puzzle shortage from suppliers and we had a limit of three per customer,” she added. “We’ve got to be fair to everyone.”
Sadly, the pandemic has for now silenced the store’s popular popcorn popper. But a gigantic vintage vending machine still dispenses Coke in bottles.
“People say we’re their happy place,” Julie said. “We’re their safe spot,” added Pete.
Longtime customer Mark Pensiero said the Benders’ support for local organizations has built customer loyalty. “We are so fortunate to have them here in town,” he said. “The other day I was building benches for STEM (Save the Environment of Moorestown) and I knew Pete would have the hardware we needed.”
Said Kiersten Arthur, also a regular: “My husband and I like to support small local businesses. Plus, it’s our favorite store. Today, we’re here for puzzles and Christmas decorations.”
Another couple shopping that afternoon weren’t necessarily sure what they were looking for.
“My husband’s back there somewhere and I just want to see what Julie’s got,” said Barbara Palko, of Cinnaminson.
Joining his wife, John Palko said he’d found garden stakes that would be perfect to support Christmas lawn ornaments.
“If you can’t find it here,” he said, “you don’t need it.”