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Old-fashioned Astoria hardware store thrives

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Bob Shapiro says entering his Astoria hardware store is like walking into a “time warp,” for little has changed since it was founded nearly a century ago.

Walter’s Hardware at 35-17 Broadway is one in a generation of old-school neighborhood hardware stores threatened by the encroachment of large-scale chains like the Home Depot, which opened a giant outlet on Northern Boulevard in Long Island City nearly three years ago.

The store, founded by Marty Walters in 1922, was purchased by Shapiro in 1978 when its second proprietor — his uncle Maurice Osteror, the founder’s cousin — died in a car accident.

With a history that extends well beyond the memories of its owner and most of its customers, Walters boasts an authenticity that can only be earned through age.

The oak floor is still vintage 1920s, its soft grayish-brown surface revealing the deep cracks and dark splotches to prove it.

Rolling wooden ladders hook into a railing that runs much of the store’s length, providing convenient access to a collection of merchandise stacked all the way to the ceiling.

Walter’s even possesses what Shapiro described as the distinctive “smell of a hardware store,” which he said is produced by a commingling of odors from fertilizer and oil, among others.

That Walters and Home Depot could be considered competitors speaks to the major changes that have transformed much of the retail landscape over the past century from mom-and-pop operations to megastores. Walters packs into a narrow storefront what the Home Depot stretches across a chain of towering aisles, and Shapiro is convinced he offers a comparable selection despite the difference in scale.

The arrival of Home Depot “made us sharper, more considerate, more aware of our surroundings, more attentive to our customers,” Shapiro said. “We carry a wider selection, we have a wider inventory than we’ve ever had to keep up with the times.”

Shapiro wedges his merchandise into whatever crevices it will fit into, taking full advantage of every square inch the narrow storefront has to offer. Small paint roller covers sit in the shelves of medicine cabinets, while a fleet of carts hangs from the ceiling precariously close to the taller patrons’ heads.

Some of his wares are hidden in corners few would even think to look at. A peg-board on which dozens of pliers dangle doubles as the door of a cabinet, swinging open to reveal a well-stocked stack of miniature drawers.

Shapiro said the business caters “to the apartment dweller,” although it is difficult for him to characterize his diverse roster of patrons in terms more specific than that, as Astoria’s increasingly-international character brings him customers from all parts of the world.

“Each sale is an adventure in the store,” he said. “You have to break down the barriers and explain to them using words and diagrams how to repair.”

Walters has also benefited from Astoria’s recent rise as a habitat for young New Yorkers emigrating across the river from Manhattan, a population he characterized as “not too tool-friendly.”

“You’re teaching them how to fix things in their house, and they’re a real lot of fun,” Shapiro said. “I love them to death.”

Not ones to feign expertise as a means of hiding their ignorance, his customers are quick to take advantage of the free advice that comes with their purchases.

“They will fess up. They try to pick your brains for knowledge,” he said. “You walk them through the operation on how to repair it. This they cannot get at Home Depot, this they cannot get at probably any other hardware store that would spend the time with them to do it.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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