In their 2011 documentary The Last Hardware Store, noted portrait photographer and executive producer Sarah Huntington, director and veteran videographer Peter Buck and well-known advertising agency owner and writer/editor Drew Babb tell the nearly 100-year-old story of Nichols Hardware.
Representing, in many ways, the commercial lynchpin of Purcellville’s Historic District, Nichols Hardware is remarkable not only for the fact that it will celebrate it’s 100th anniversary next year, but also for the fact that you and I, old timers and newcomers alike can walk into Nichols today and experience the same thing a customer in the early part of the 20th Century would have experienced. Personal service. Quality products. Problem solving for that pesky household job.
Just as Nichols advertised back in the day, “We have the largest and most compete stock of hardware and furniture in the county … “ so goes the Nichols story today – not withstanding the product selection, size and reach of big box stores such as Home Depot.
Nichols’ storefront and signature pale blue barn – the later structure identified by Virginia historians as our state’s “outstanding building of that type and style” – have looked the same for years. And, Nichols is the oldest retail store in the Virginia Piedmont still owned by the family that founded it.
Each time I’m in Nichols Hardware I long for my Long Island childhood. Then I realize that when you are in Nichols you need not long for anything – because everything you want and value is right there, alive and in the flesh. I even like to think that the section of plumbing pipe a Nichols Hardware guy sold me as a perfect fix for a broken pair of crutches was the same item that a Nichols clerk from the 1950s might have suggested for the same purpose.
American history has walked hand in hand with Nichols Hardware for each of its 99+ years.
There was a time when Purcellville’s electricity came on at 5 a.m. and went off at midnight, and that basically determined Nichols’ working hours. Dairy farmers brought their milk to this part of Purcellville in the early morning hours, where the milk was put on the Washington & Old Dominion train bound for Rosslyn for thirsty Washington, DC.
Lester Cummings’s livery stable – now the Nichols storage barn – was purchased by the store in 1923. History walked hand in hand with the store as the livery business, previously sustained by rural life’s use of horses and buggies, was being replaced by the automobile business.
Before electricity found its way to surrounding farms, Nichols was the source of the batteries local folk used in their radios so they could tune in to the world. And, when the Tri-County Electric Cooperative’s lines finally came to the western Loudoun countryside, and radio batteries were no longer needed, Nichols branched out into the sale of increasingly popular refrigerators while the cooperative made the customer’s $5 a month Nichols payment easy by adding it to their electric bill.
People often wonder how a place like Nichols Hardware still exists. I believe it exists because certain people buck the sometimes trite saying that “you can’t stop progress,” understanding that progress does not simply include replacing something old with something new. This is why the old grain mill and train station a couple of doors down from Nichols was not replaced by a small strip mall, but tastefully restored to an open public space for people using the old WO&D rail bed (now a bike trail) and a successful and beautiful restaurant. This is why, for the moment, when you are shopping, dining or just strolling through this part of Purcellville you somehow feel like you are “coming home.”
But, while Purcellville’s historic downtown has in many respects managed to maintain the best of the past while providing for the needs of the new generation – with high-speed internet access, fun gourmet cafes and thriving small businesses – plans for at least one major new development named Vineyard Square threatens to turn Purcellville’s historic downtown into a dense, squeeze every penny out of it that you can residential and commercial center.
As with the Harris Teeter shopping center – punctuated by a lighted water fountain where a stream use to be, and the expansive Southern Collector Road – which now bisects Purcellville’s last working farm, what is proposed for our historic downtown area is development that replaces something economically viable and truly unique … with inappropriate and oversized town center style development – development you’d see anywhere.
Nichols Hardware changed over the years in order to survive; yet somehow emerged to be just as relevant to Purcellville today as it was in 1914.
I hope that Purcellville’s old timers and new residents work together and buck the trend to turn Purcellville’s historic downtown into another residential and commercial strip center, versus a place that honors where the town has been, has some historic style, and, by the way, meets our needs just fine.
Towns like Purcellville lose their soul when they allow new development to eclipse and replace what is truly important to us.