Family members give update on future of downtown's Ernst & Son Hardware
They say going into Ernst & Son Hardware store is like going backward in a time machine. If so, buy me some Ice Melt, or a Feb. 19 ticket to the Caribbean, whichever one is handier. But since Rod Ernst’s death late last month, there’s been a question about whether anyone would be going into the store for much longer.
Well, I talked with Ernst family members recently, and they told me the store is open and it plans to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
“We are going to try to keep it open as long as possible,” said Shirley Ernst, Rod’s widow. “We would love to find someone who wants to rent it and keep this service going.”
The store closed for eight days following Rod’s death on Jan. 23.
“I’m sure Rod didn’t approve of that,” Shirley said of the closing. “He would have wanted us down here the next day.”
But the store is a true, tight-knit small business. The employees at the store are like family, said Lynda Allen, Rod’s oldest daughter. She said they all needed time to grieve, and family members also needed some time to think about what they were going to do with a downtown institution.
The store has been open in Lawrence since 1905, all the time being owned by the Ernst family. Rod, 84, was the third-generation owner of the business.
Other family members weren’t overly active in the day-to-day operations of the store. Lynda said that has changed since Rod’s death. She, her mom and several other family members and friends have been coming to the store nearly every day. They’ve been marking down prices — most items are selling for at least 20 percent off — and they’ve been sorting through merchandise.
You can find some of the new merchandise hanging behind the counter. Marvelous, new hunting and fishing vests. Well, maybe “new” isn’t the right word. The vests are from the 1970s, but Lynda found them still in their original box and packaging. They’ve just been in storage.
Ernst & Son is that type of store. The storefront at 826 Massachusetts St. is stocked full of items, including on old-style shelves that are so tall you sometimes need a ladder to retrieve an item. And you haven’t even seen the basement.
“We try not to go down there very often,” Lynda said with a laugh.
Lynda, though, said the family is working on a plan to revamp the merchandise mix at the store. While hardware has been its main line, the store has long had a lot of sporting goods equipment. She said the sporting goods line probably doesn’t make a lot of sense for the store anymore.
In terms of new items, Lynda said she’s not quite sure. She said she has heard from several downtown business owners that a shop that sells more conveniences would be appreciated.
“Even just bottled water,” Lynda said. “That can be hard to find on Massachusetts Street.”
A new operator, though, might have his or her own ideas. Lynda agreed with her mother that finding someone to rent the store would be a good option.
In the meantime family members and friends will continue sorting through the merchandise. A possible slogan for the store perhaps has already emerged.
“We’ve got vintage, that is for sure,” Lynda said.
But it is not just merchandise that is causing Lynda to pause and investigate. She said she recently found a ledger book from 1905, the first year the store was open.
“Every piece of merchandise sold was handwritten in the ledger,” she said.
As she looked further, she found years and years worth of ledgers.
“It has kind of been like a museum,” she said.