Pleasants had occupied its flagship store at 2024 W. Broad St. since 1975. The building will be demolished this spring. (Photo by Justin Vaughan)
Ten cars idle in the shadow of Pleasants Hardware's flagship store on West Broad Street. It’s Saturday, Feb. 27, and approaching 8 a.m., when the doors will open on its last day in business. The signs on the front door broadcast its fate for any who haven’t heard: Total liquidation. Everything in the store must go.
As the first wave of shoppers file in, a man heads past the cash registers toward the ruins of the fasteners department, calling out: “Early bird gets the worm.”
Few worms remain. That hasn’t stopped the opportunistic contractors, hobbyist homeowners or novice do-it-yourselfers from venturing in day after day all month, as prices have been slashed and then slashed again. Earlier in the week, Clay Butler, the store’s good-humored manager, summarized the staff’s collective feeling: “It’s like watching vultures pick the meat off a carcass.”
Clay Butler, the Broad Street store manager, sifts through the carnage. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Two men carry a dusty bookshelf to the counter. Office furniture, some dating to the ’80s by the looks of it, appears to be the only surplus item. There are also window screens, plumbing parts and a stockpile of Sqwincher, a powder-based hydration mix the company purchased years ago when it couldn’t buy Gatorade for several months. A sales associate commiserating with a co-worker about how grim things were a few days earlier, called it some kind of “off-brand North Korean drink mix.”
Butler, keys jingling from his belt loop, reaches behind the main checkout counter and rolls out a stack of unopened boxes of paper bags trumpeting the company’s 100th anniversary, which was last year. The manager and his skeleton crew of employees couldn’t fill them all today if they tried.
On its last day, the beloved hardware store at 2024 W. Broad Street is a literal shell of what it was, reduced to a labyrinth of empty shelves by the going-out-of-business sale. Loyal customers disappeared as stock dwindled. In their place, arose bargain hunters, some of dubious manners.
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Shoppers swarm the hardware store in its last week, as markdowns reach 75 percent. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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(Photo by Jay Paul)
“It’s going to be crazy today,” says Bill Davidson, a 91-year-old World War II veteran, sitting behind the keys counter. He has cut and sold keys for 18 years to quell the boredom of retirement. “People will be coming in here looking for 95 percent off. They’ll say, ‘Is this only 75 percent off?’ ”
The remaining staff of about 65 people has kept working out of respect for the establishment, as well as for the severance package: Full-timers get two weeks pay for every five years of service and three additional months of health insurance coverage. Many have spent their entire adult lives working for the Hatcher family’s hardware empire. They speak of their customers as friends, their co-workers as family, and the store as not only a business, but as a community fixture. Its demise is personal.
“My mom said, ‘I’ve got to come by today and see the store,’ and I said, ‘Mom, you don’t want to see this,’ ” Butler says.
Pleasants' flagship had been on West Broad since 1975, but in December 2014, its parent company, C.F. Sauer Co., said it would close it and build a new store 1.5 miles west in Henrico County. Doing so would open up a prime site for Sauer Properties Inc. to build a mixed-use development anchored by a long-coveted Whole Foods grocery store.
On Tuesday, Dec. 29, store employees were summoned to small group meetings with a human resources representative from Sauer. She told them Sauer would be selling the Pleasants chain, and closing their store. The last day would be Feb. 27. The HR rep handed out federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification letters, required by the U.S. Department of Labor, then said, “ ‘Go back to work,’ ” says Donna Powell, who worked for the hardware store for 33 years.
A few days later, the story broke: Sauer had scrapped its plans to relocate the flagship store. It would sell the other seven Pleasants locations to Taylor’s Do It Center, a similar family owned outfit based in Virginia Beach. Ninety people would lose their jobs.
“A Not So Pleasant Surprise” read the headline published by this magazine. On the contrary, employees said during the store’s last week. It wasn’t a surprise, at all.
Staffers said they had suspected something was amiss for months. Empty hooks on the sales floor stayed empty. Orders weren’t placed and shipments slowed. Inventory was dwindling. Staff openings stayed vacant.
James Hatcher III, Pleasants’ president, said he met with Sauer representatives last summer to discuss preparations for the move. In early fall, he received word Sauer did not want to move forward with the relocation plan and intended to sell the chain.
“You go through a lot of different emotions,” Hatcher says. “It’s surprise, concern, apprehension. A lot of what I felt was what it was going to mean for the people here.”
A buyer with no store to buy for, Powell was relegated to the front counter, where, on a rainy Tuesday, four days before closure, she checks out a steady stream of customers. Had she quit, she says, she would have forfeited her severance package and health insurance coverage.
“We’ve all been together for years and years and years,” she says of her co-workers. “I’m with these people more than I’m with my family.”
She fights back tears as she rings up a young woman with an armful of odds and ends. Powell drops items into a paper bag and accidentally knocks it to the floor.
“Do you want me to hold that open for you?” the customer asks, as Powell puts the bag back on the counter.
The bag falls again. Wiping her nose, Powell declines assistance. She finishes ringing up the woman.
She swipes her card, and Powell drops the receipt in the bag.
“Have a nice day.”
A Depression-era advertisement for Pleasants in the Richmond Times-Dispatch reads “Come or Phone and Get What you Want How you Want It.” The store's motto — “Most Anything” — appears next to a picture of Henry A. Pleasants, who purchased it in 1915 from its second owner.
The words ring true for employees, who prided themselves on the relationships they built with customers, who, in turn, praised the employees’ customer service. The staff’s longevity and knowledge of the products, too, were a source of pride.
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Ben Peters of the paint department worked for Pleasants for 38 years. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Lawrence Eppard, a cabinetmaker, visited the store four separate times on its final day. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Bill Davidson, a 91-year-old World War II veteran, cut keys and picked locks for 18 years at the hardware store. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Donna Powell wipes aways tears as closing time nears on Saturday, Feb. 27. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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James Hatcher III, Pleasants’ president, thanks customers for their patronage and staffers for their service at close of business. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Tim McCready, a sales associate in the fasteners department, said the business was unlike other retail operations. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Clark Glave, a Fan-based contractor, shopped at the store for 30 years. (Photo by Jay Paul)
“With hardware, it sort of gets in your blood,” says Butler, the store manager.
Take Ben Peters in the paint department. The 60-year-old John Marshall High School graduate has worked in various capacities for the company for 38 years. He explains, in his Richmond drawl, that women typically are adventurous in their color selections (reds, blues, greens), while men err on the side of caution (neutrals, antique white).
Joe White, a contractor who says he has shopped at Pleasants for three decades, pops over, interrupting Peters’ monologue on the troubles the color burgundy has given him over the years. White is waiting on a can of brown paint — the perfect excuse to give some grief to his old friend, whom he jokingly calls “the paint guru.”
“Let me get the heck out of here,” White says, feigning impatience.
The guru inspects his mixture, and then compares it to the color chip. Too brown, he worries. White assures him it’s fine. “For Pleasants to go out of business, it’s hard to believe,” White says, as he leaves the store.
Many contractors depended on their store accounts, which allowed them to buy materials with credit to complete jobs and pay down the tab after work was finished. Others came for the hard-to-find parts often needed for fixing up older homes.
Tim McCready, a sales associate, recalls helping a frantic customer in the store’s fasteners department. While new to the post by Pleasants’ standards, McCready quickly realized the customer was looking for something relatively obscure. “He was asking for a 5/8s forged eye-nut,” he says. “I got it for him, and this big burly tradesman just grabbed me in a bear hug. He said it may have saved his job."
“There was a kind of a humanity left there you don’t see in a lot of retail jobs where it’s all by the book,” McCready says.
Lawrence Eppard, a cabinetmaker by trade, says he visited the Broad Street store most days in the last 35 years. Sometimes twice a day, quips James Gibbs, another Pleasants’ staff veteran who manned the power tools counter. Gibbs sold Eppard his first saws, and watched him raise his son.
“I wanted my granddaughter to come in here and come up, too. Now, it’ll never happen,” Eppard says. “It’s hard on [the staff], but it’s tearing me up, too.”
After leaving the flagship store for the final time, employees pose in front of a banner thanking the city for its support. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Certain businesses are inextricably linked to the communities they serve. In Richmond, think Thalhimers, Ukrops grocery stores, Reynolds Metals. Pleasants falls into that category.
In 1915, James T. Hatcher Sr. dropped out of school in eighth grade to work for the hardware store at 1607 W. Broad St. He purchased it in 1952 from its founder. James Hatcher Jr., a chemist, followed in his father’s footsteps at the store, trading beakers for building materials. As a 9-year-old tagalong, James Hatcher III would ride up and down the old freight elevator in the Lombardy Street location on Saturdays. “I remember just talking about the business around the dinner table,” he says. “It was always a part of our lives.”
When Hatcher III graduated from the University of Virginia in 1984, he joined the staff as a full-time assistant store manager. For five years, he shared a windowless office with his grandfather. They’d work for an hour or two each morning before hitting the sales floor together. The eldest Hatcher worked until he was 93.
In 1989, shortly before his retirement, Hatcher Jr. sold Pleasants to C.F. Sauer Co., another Richmond business with a strong local identity. The financial burden of personally guaranteeing loans for the business grew too risky in his eyes, his son says. Sauer, a leading manufacturer of spices and seasoning mixes, offered stability.
Hatcher III, now 54, remained working at Pleasants after his father’s retirement, and, in 1999, Sauer named him company president. Under his watch, a slew of smaller, neighborhood-based Pleasants opened around the region. The strategy was intended to intercept shoppers weary of fighting the crowds in the suburban shopping centers. A year after Hatcher III became president, Pleasants partnered with Ace Hardware, a cooperative representing 4,600 stores nationwide. The move allowed Pleasants to purchase merchandise from vendors at lower prices, and that meant it could better compete with giants Lowe's and Home Depot, Hatcher says. Despite the economic downturn, the chain consistently turned a profit over the last decade, he adds.
“There used to be 30 independent hardware stores in the city,” he says. “We were the only ones left.”
Mark Sauer, executive vice president of the Sauer Co., said it never had a hand in Pleasants’ day-to-day management. “We didn’t know anything about the hardware business,” he says in a phone interview the week the sale to Taylor’s Do It Centers finalized.
The terms of the deal were not disclosed. The flagship store is scheduled for demolition this spring.
When discussing the months leading to the sale, Hatcher gives the impression of a father who stubbed his toe and is gritting his teeth to avoid dropping an F-bomb in front of his children. Colleagues say it hit him hard. Powell says she found her boss behind his desk with his face buried in his hands. “His granddaddy worked here. His father worked here. How could he not be emotional?” she says.
Hatcher is gracious about the sale when asked, and says he was not party to the negotiations. “It was a perfectly reasonable decision,” he says. “I can’t look at any part of this and say that wasn’t fair or a good decision. I understand 100 percent of it.”
Unloading his cart in what is his seventh trip to the store since the going-out-of-business-sale began, Clark Glave, a Fan-based contractor, laments the closure, and points back to the sale to Sauer. “I think what happened is it went from a small, family-owned business to a commercial entity. ”
Others are more blunt.
“[Sauer Co.] never gave a damn about the company. They wanted the property,” says Bill Holman, who worked for Pleasants for 34 years. He paid it one last visit a few days before the closing. By chance, he caught Hatcher in the parking lot on the way to a meeting.
“I told him hang tough,” Holman says. “He shouldn’t have guilt riding on his shoulders that a 100-year-old business is no more.”
Taylor’s president and CEO, Joe Taylor, said the company would keep the Pleasants name on the seven remaining locations in the Richmond market. Taylor’s also hired several longtime Pleasants employees.
A statement from Taylor in January formally announced the deal: “We can’t wait to build on the legacy of outstanding customer service and make the Pleasants experience an even better one for customers and employees.”
Hatcher says he was not asked to join the new company.
Outside a row of offices just off the sales floor, next to a corkboard pinned with job listings, a sign-up sheet for a staff get-together in March at the Golden Corral is filling with scribbled names. “Remember,” the sheet reads, “we are Pleasants Hardware, not the building, the tools, pipe fittings, paint, hinges or screws.”
Nearby, Donna Powell has been crying for 20 minutes. “I’m trying to decide whether to go up to my office one last time,” she says before disappearing up the stairs.
It’s 4:45 on Saturday afternoon.
The store bustles in its waning moments. About 40 current and former employees and longtime customers mingle. A line stretches down an aisle and out of sight — the final customers.
Butler, the manager, is out by the front door. His mother ended up coming in, after all. He gave her a tour of the building’s expansive empty warehouses. She had never seen them before.
The intercom sounds. “Attention all Pleasants Hardware shoppers. Our store will close in approximately 10 minutes. We ask that you please bring all your final selections up to the front of the store for checkout. Thank you.”
Lawrence Eppard, the cabinetmaker, is sitting alone amid the hubbub. He has left the store and returned four separate times during the day. He just keeps finding things to buy, he says. At a loss, he looks down at his basket. “What am I even going to do with a keyboard?”
Kaye Corbett, a customer, picks up a phone and presses the intercom button.
“I’m speaking for everyone I’ve met who has ever come here,” she says. “I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your hearts with us. It means the world.”
The cashiers ring up the last few shoppers. The last in line, Wyn Price, piles the boxes of Sqwinchers drink mix into his cart. He says he wants to donate them to Sports Backers.
James Hatcher’s voice sounds over the intercom, “Ladies and gentleman, it is 5 o’clock and, as of right now, Pleasants Hardware, midtown location, is closed. We thank you for 100 years of your patronage, 100 years of the service of our employees. And with that — my father always said keep it short, so — we’re done. Thank you.”
Matt Graham closes the doors on Pleasants' last day. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Everyone claps. His smile flickers. The start of business Monday will mark the first day in a century that a Hatcher hasn’t worked for Pleasants Hardware.
Ben Peters finishes mixing his last can of paint — a taupe. The staff lingers, exchanging goodbyes, hugging and posing for photos. No one wants to leave.
Eventually, the crowd trickles into the dusk. Some walk across the street for a drink, passing the front of the building with its painted banner thanking the city for its support over the years. Donna Powell walks out alone holding a single rose, a gift from Hatcher’s mother. Later that evening, Powell mourns on Facebook, “Another Richmond landmark gone.”