BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — If not for the sage advice from a friend, the General Pro Hardware store that has served Whitehouse for 50 years might have been a hot dog restaurant.
It was 1971, and the commercial building that now houses the Whitehouse Party Store, Buzz Diner and Dance Center of Northwest Ohio was Don Scott Chevrolet – a bustling dealership on Providence Street. With cars filling the showroom and two nearby lots, the dealership was in need of expansion, Chevrolet leaders told the late Mr. Scott. So, he built a larger dealership on SR 64 and put the building at 6660 Providence St. up for sale.
“I don’t know why, but my dad decided to buy that building,” said Jeff Chamberlain, who purchased the General Pro Hardware business from his parents, Ray and Cathy, in 2002.
Although the building had six apartments upstairs, the commercial areas were empty, and Ray was looking for a way to generate income.
“He thought about going into the hot dog business or ice cream or some kind of retail when his sales manager said, ‘Ray, you sell hardware for a living, why not go into the hardware business?’”
As the Toledo rep for hardware distributor Bostwick Braun, Ray was familiar with every store and item for sale in Northwest Ohio. So, on May 15, 1972, he opened General Pro Hardware in the 2,500-square-foot space that had been the Don Scott garage.
The grand opening wasn’t so grand, Jeff recalls. Ray had allowed a nonprofit group to use some space to do a newspaper drive. On opening day, two semi-trailers were blocking the entrance to the new store.
“We did $15.00 worth of business – no one could see us,” Jeff said.
During the daytime, retirees worked in the store while Ray finished out his 49-year career with Bostwick Braun. Jeff, a 1980 Anthony Wayne graduate, was in third grade but would go to the store after school to work until his dad got there.
“This was in the 1970s, when credit cards first came out,” he recalled. “The old guys weren’t comfortable with calling in the numbers to the credit card company – that’s how you did it back then – so I would do it when I got out of school.”
By the late 1980s, the hardware store was busting at the seams, so the Chamberlains looked across the street to property they owned. In 1988, the family had the floor poured and hired crews to put up a 9,000-square-foot structure. Jeff and Ray installed the electrical, heating and plumbing.
“We are still one of the biggest commercial buildings in Whitehouse besides American Can,” Jeff said, referring to what is now Ardagh Group.
The aisles of the hardware store are filled with anything a homeowner or contractor might need. Big sellers include nuts and bolts, pool chemicals, mulch and topsoil.
With the ability to cut glass and screen and even thread pipe, Jeff said the staff meets homeowners’ needs.
Over the past 50 years, Ray and Jeff bought merchandise from over 60 hardware stores, and that’s allowed customers to find items not found elsewhere.
“Like the mantles for an old Coleman lamp,” Jeff said. “We also have cabinet hardware that’s discontinued, so if you’re looking for something to replace a missing piece, we might have it.”
Pointing to a display, Jeff explained that the store has the ropes and pulleys for replacing antique windows. General Pro Hardware has multiple widths of both rope and chain that can be cut to length rather than buying too much.
“We supply the big rope that pulls the canal barge at Providence Metropark,” Jeff said. “They need 161 feet, and I had to teach him to back braid.”
That’s the process of braiding the rope end so the loop won’t pull out – a skill Jeff learned from the late Doug Graf, who was a Navy veteran and maintenance worker for Anthony Wayne Local Schools. Graf also taught him to weld using a hanger, but Jeff has enough knowledge of most home systems that he’s glad to help out with suggestions for plumbing and electrical.
Ellen Tipping, an employee with 40 years of hardware experience, also brings a wealth of knowledge.
“Guys will come in here and walk right past her to ask me a question, but I send them right back to her,” Jeff said. “Ellen is smart. I’m glad we have her here.”
Staying in business for 50 years has required a lot of dedication from the family, Jeff said, noting that his son Joe and daughter Whitney have both helped out at the store. Jeff’s wife Becky, with help from their daughter Allie, operates the family-owned Buzz Diner and helps out at Whitehouse Party Store in the evenings. That means the couple often works 50- or 60-hour weeks.
Last year, the Chamberlains invested in adding solar arrays on the roof of the hardware store and commercial building – a move that will save money and lessen the impact on the environment in the long run.