They come for the humblest of plumbing products, the brass shower stem.
From New York, New Jersey, Delaware, or just around the corner, old home lovers and cost-conscious flippers program their GPS units for the intersection of Fifth Street and Champlost Avenue seeking an $11 or a $19 solution to a leaky faucet.
They've looked everywhere by the time they wander into the overstuffed time capsule called Fern Rock Hardware. It's always their last stop. Once inside, they realize it should have been the first.
"If you can't find this, you've got to tear your bathroom wall out," notes new owner Steve Schwab, holding up one of the 80-plus stems he stocks. "Home Depot sends us people needing these every day."
Behind the counter, 83-year-old Lenora Triebwasser suppresses a smile.
She was born over a different hardware store and has spent 57 years in this one. She blushes when I tell her I'm dropping by following a vague reader tip that there's a survival story in these shelves. Since I've come all this way, she might as well oblige.
A permanent fixture
Manny and Lenora Triebwasser — "Mr. and Mrs. T." to their fans — bought the store, which opened in 1929, in 1955. At first, Manny worked with his father, a gentleman more fond of numbers than nuts. Once the Triebwassers' sons were in school, Mrs. T. became a permanent fixture.
It's a good thing she's petite, since the store measures just 1,200 square feet. New brooms and extension cords that predate the Internet hang from hooks attached to the original tin ceiling.
I'm surrounded by copper couplings, reducing elbows, caps and adapters. Admiring the claustrophobic chaos of all the baggies with pieces and parts, Mrs. T. shares that "we own a building across the street with three apartments, one we just use to store the lawn mowers and hot water heaters."
She points to an aisle so narrow we don't dare try to enter together.
"Did you see all those key blanks?" Mrs. T. asks as I touch several dusty antiques. "Some of them sit there forever until one day someone walks in and needs one of the really old ones."
Lest I think she's exaggerating, 28-year-employee Henry Riggs pipes in as he's making two replacements for Myra Brooks, a regular whose son keeps getting locked out of the house.
"We have keys," Riggs brags, "for a Model T."
Don't change a thing
A Haitian woman interrupts us seeking a quart of white paint, "a cheap one."
"We don't sell cheap paint," Mrs. T. reminds as she clambers and climbs, knowing that the customer has only the dollars in her purse to spend.
Up front, Riggs, a worldly Vietnam veteran, flirts with a customer in Korean.
"We have 75 different languages coming in here," he explains. He's charming in at least a dozen, but when it's just Mrs. T, "sometimes I just walk them around the store and let them point to what they need."
None of the Triebwassers' sons wanted to fix window screens for a living. The store was robbed four times, but Mrs. T. worried more about 87-year-old Mr. T. falling down the steep basement stairs.
Two years ago, they sold the place to Schwab, a 36-year-old hardware wholesaler. He expanded the business, supplying apartment buildings, but kept the veteran staff. And he rejoiced when Mrs. T. offered to stay on indefinitely as a volunteer tour guide.
"The key to this store's success is not changing it," Schwab says. Besides, "I still don't know where half the things are in this place."