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Benn’s Hardware to close after 68 years in Bayside

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In many ways Ben Fried and his son Jack are the guardian angels of Bayside’s “Main Street.”

Presiding over Bell Boulevard from their now legendary hardware store, the father-and-son team has spent nearly seven decades taking care of their customers’ shopping needs. But at Benn’s Hardware at 42-29 Bell Blvd., the pair has done more than just sell tools or household items.

In a way, Ben Fried, 86, and Jack, 59, are the heart of Bayside — longtime merchants who have not only loyally served their customers but become an integral part of the community, fighting throughout the years to preserve and improve it.

Now the Frieds have decided to turn in their cash register and retire, Jack Fried said, emphasizing retirement in an interview about the family’s recent decision to close the 68-year-old shop.

“We’re not going out of business,” he said firmly. “That’s when you have no business and you can’t make ends meet. We’re retiring. It’s been 68 years, and we’re both going to take it easier now and enjoy our remaining years.”

That kind of spunkiness is exactly how Ben Fried, a Corona native, was inspired to start his store in 1935.

As the story goes, Jack Fried said 19-year-old Ben was working in a department store in Corona when he had a dispute with his boss, who told Ben he’d “never make it.”

To spite the boss, Ben Fried went out, found a location on Bell Boulevard a few doors away from the present storefront and started his own business: Benn’s Bargains, selling school supplies, Lionel trains and other assorted household items.

Ben Fried used to compete with the Woolworth’s down the block, his son said, by selling everything for a penny less than the bigger store.

When Woolworth’s went out of business years later, Jack Fried said “we sat down and made a list of everything Woolworth’s carried, then we started carrying it.”

Cultivating business savvy has been a part of the success of Benn’s Hardware. So was a sense of ego — that’s the reason behind the unusual spelling of Benn’s.

Upon seeing the original sign for his store, Ben’s Hardware, the elder Fried thought the name was not impressive enough, Jack said. So Ben Fried had the sign maker add the extra letter to make it more striking.

The remarkable thing about the Frieds is not only their well-stocked store, which has gone through several expansions and survived a major 1990 fire that destroyed several other Bell Boulevard businesses. The proprietors’ dedication to the Bayside community, where the two will continue to live, is what sets Benn’s apart.

“Many years ago we felt that being a merchant in the community meant that it was our obligation to help the community, to not just reap the benefits,” said Jack Fried, who grew up working in the business with his father. “You have to not only take from the community but to give back, and we’re going to keep doing it.”

Ben and Jack Fried have been some of the most active Baysiders around when it comes to civic issues. The pair helped start the Bell Boulevard Merchants Association in the 1980s, organized and ran a rally attended by 1,000 people when Mayor Abe Beame decided to close the 306 Ladder Company firehouse on the corner of 214th Place and 41st and have fought to keep parking on Bell Boulevard available to shoppers.

The efforts of the Frieds’ activism resulted in the city adding a fire station at 64th Avenue and Springfield Boulevard, Jack Fried said, to increase fire protection in the Bayside area. The younger Fried is a 23-year veteran of Community Board 11 in Little Neck, and both have served on the 111th Police Precinct Community Council. The Frieds are also strong supporters of the annual holiday Children’s Parade on Bell Boulevard run by the 111th Precinct Council each year.

“This is still one of the best areas in the city,” Jack Fried said of Bayside. He pledged to continue his community activism even after the store closes.

Jack Fried said new owners from Astoria were getting ready to take over the building but declined to give their name or comment on their plans for the space.

As the Frieds get ready to close Benn’s Hardware with a 20 percent off sale over the next several weeks, Jack Fried said it is time to take a break.

“It's been hectic,” he said of the long hours and short vacations characterizing the busy life of a neighborhood merchant. “I feel kind of emotional, leaving the store after so many years. It will be a big change.”

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:20 pm, October 10, 2011
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