For 72 years, generations of customers came to Central Hardware for the proper wing nut, a bag of fertilizer, or advice on how to fix a leaky toilet. The store also was a social hub, where they chatted and traded news amid aisles packed with cardboard boxes of drill bits, electrical wiring and lightbulbs.
Now the Valley Stream shop -- a treasure trove of memories and gadgets spanning the vintage electric broom to power drills -- is closing its doors.
Tomorrow, Alan Oppenheimer, 60, the third generation in his family to run the business, will begin a new job managing the facility at a Baldwin medical technology and device firm called elliquence. He plans to open Central Hardware on Saturdays only long enough to clear out inventory.
Customers like Jonathan Lehrer said it was more than a store closing.
"You went there for a purpose, but at the same time you saw people you knew, so it was also a social call," said Lehrer, 35, a professor of horticulture at Farmingdale State College. A customer since childhood, he recently stopped by the store to buy a red Lowell Duster, an insecticide dispenser from the 1950s.
The store is a vault of memories for the Oppenheimer family, too."It's really the passing of an era," said Debbie Oppenheimer, Alan's sister and executive vice president of NBC Universal International TV Production in Los Angeles. "The hardware store is a metaphor to me of a time that is very sadly going by."
As self-service big box stores, with their advertising power, volume and variety, proliferated, Central Hardware was getting squeezed. Sales had fallen by at least 40 percent in a decade to about $600,000 a year, said Laura Oppenheimer, Alan's wife and the store's bookkeeper, while costs continued to rise.
Business got to the point that "a big day for me would be making 100 keys," Alan said. "You couldn't just wait for the next snowstorm to sell a snowblower, and we have high payroll costs because our business was built on personal service." He insisted on paying for health insurance for his full-time employees, a rarity among small businesses.
The family business got its start when David Oppenheimer fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Oppenheimer, a veteran of the German army awarded the Iron Cross in the First World War, had run a successful hardware wholesale business in Aub, Germany, in Bavaria. As Nazi persecution of Jews intensified, he planned his family's escape, taking pleasure cruises to England and depositing his money -- which he carried in Nivea tins sewn into his coat lining -- into an English bank, his grandson, Alan Oppenheimer, said. He later immigrated to New York City with his family in 1938.
David Oppenheimer first settled his family in Manhattan's Washington Heights. His move to Valley Stream was an accident of sorts: He saw an ad for a small storefront for sale "near Rockefeller Center." As it turned out, the store was near Rockville Centre, on Central Avenue in Valley Stream, then quite a rural area.
His son, Eric Oppenheimer, fought in World War II and returned to study architecture at the Pratt Institute, but ultimately he was drawn to the store, where his father needed help, he said. Central Hardware benefited from the building boom taking place in Valley Stream at the time, and moved to a larger location next door.
At one point there were 15 hardware stores in Valley Stream, Eric Oppenheimer said. Even with the competition, the store had large industrial customers, school districts and municipalities, and homeowners.
When Alan joined the business, he and his father continued to guide customers on home improvement projects, a courtesy many loyal patrons said they don't find in the big box chain stores. "Customers could walk out without buying anything and [with] an answer and we'd be satisfied because we helped somebody," said Laura Oppenheimer.
With signs posted in the windows advertising 70 percent discounts, customers trickled in Saturday. Some came for bargains, others to wish the employees and owners well.
"I can't believe it. This place is an icon," said Buccola, 60, an electrical engineer who stopped in to lament the closing. Shaking his head, he recalled scores of trips to the store since he bought his Valley Stream house in 1977.
"Nearly everything in my home -- the pipes, the wiring -- all from this place," he said.
Laurie Loquercio, 47, of Valley Stream recalled strolling the aisles as a little girl with her grandfather, a contractor.
"I would pick up something and he would explain to me what it was used for," she said. "As a child, it seemed like they had everything."
Employee Wayne Russell, 61, of Valley Stream, said he would miss "all the people we worked with." He then pointed to Alan Oppenheimer, who was walking down an aisle to help a customer. "And I'm going to miss that guy right there."
With Candice Ferrette