It's a hardware store on the street level, a toy store on the second floor, a Christmas wonderland in the basement. Sometimes you'll even find tomatoes, honey, and other out-of-place stuff for sale. But this 67-year-old family business at the terminus of Philadelphia's most prestigious train line is, more than anything else, a miracle.
Everyone who works there would agree — and you can usually see their mugs on a front-door poster except, with the holidays here, that poster is covered over with a giant Santa-is-coming-this-Saturday flyer. They would tell you that the Hardware Center in Paoli is a special place. A place still in the hands of the same Italian American family that started it after World War II. A place where humanity is as much a part of the shopping experience as the stuff on its shelves.
Toys R Us shut down this year. Several family-owned suburban hardware stores, too, in recent months. It's why customers always ask brother owners Greg and Steve Scartozzi: "You're not going to close like all the others, are you?"
The answer, for now, is "No!" But the brothers, 62 and 67 years old, know that all good things come to an end. Their own father, Cordine, died just a few weeks before Christmas last year. Time has its own plans for us.
"Would you like to buy a hardware store?" Greg Scartozzi asked when I wondered aloud to him just how much longer the place on Lancaster Pike might be around. None of his or his brother's kids are in line to take it over. "My father was 94 before he quit working. I know I don't want to do what my father did. The only thing that stopped my father was the fact that he's no longer with us."
The charm alone in the basement is worth a ride west from Philadelphia.
Two guys spend months down there building a Christmas display sweeter than any Macy's floor and cozier than any Christmas Eve living room.
One is A.J. DiAntonio, a 39-year-old ex-Hollywood producer who first worked in this store as a teenager. He came back for a grown-up job six years ago after pulling the plug on the California scene. He said goodbye to the Emmys, Olympics, and Flight of the Conchords productions, and hello to a job that actually ends when you go home.
His partner in Kris Kringling, Dave Caswell, is another creative type. Caswell is a 63-year-old drummer in a classic-rock cover band in West Chester.
The duo start putting together the display in September, with owner Greg as their third design wheel.
"It takes us nine weeks to do it," A.J. told me. "We're done by Halloween every year."
A wall of smokers and nutcrackers form a German-themed corner. Russian Santas are in their own nook, too. Even Estonia has a wing, with gnomelike, handmade characters fashioned from wood and fabric. There are decorations for cat and dog lovers, Eagles and Giants wing nuts, lit-up Christmas trees all over.
The centerpiece: a room filled with Santas and a wooden chair. This is where the bearded gift-giver — A.J. in costume (if you must know) — will greet so many children this weekend, the line will spill into the parking lot.
"Dave is phenomenal," cashier Joanne Brown, 69, offered as she heard me talking to Dave.
Joanne is 69. She's worked at Paoli Hardware for 46 years. Dave has 22 years under his belt here. Joanne and Dave sometimes carpool. More important, they are friends, too.
"He did a dog one year," Joanne said with affection, "and put it atop a cabinet and had a string of lights going through its mouth."
Then there is the second floor. The toy wing.
I'd heard about it on Facebook. Moms raving over its old-school, creative merchandise. One of the most popular products: the board game Parcheesi.
Business is up since Toys R Us went under this year. But it's hard keeping this place afloat, nonetheless. So many people order stuff online now.
Amazon boasted on Tuesday that the online retailer owned by the world's richest man had just logged the most business ever for a Black Friday weekend. Several independent hardware stores have closed in recent months across the suburbs: Suburban Hardware in Bryn Mawr, Ricklin's in Narberth, and Newtown Square True Value.
The Scartozzis are survivors.
One reason is that they own the building. No huge rent check means they can run a business whose profit can then be spent on providing employees a livelihood.
"You do not get rich in retail," Steve Scartozzi said. But you can have fun.
My advice to anyone this holiday: Enjoy this store while it lasts. Because all good things do come to an end. And this place is all that is good.