A NEIGHBOR AND A BUSINESS HD: Customers come first at hardware store


A craggy-faced man in a blue baseball cap comes into Lombard Paint & Hardware in Fells Point looking for chlorinated lime to dry out deer antlers so that they can be mounted on a wall.

None in stock, says salesman Kenny Crawley, but the store will get some for him by the end of the day.

Next comes Joseph Pinder, a retired seaman. As he browses around the hardware store, he chats with salesman and avid angler Steve Campbell about his most recent catch.

Then a dark-haired teen-ager walks in slowly, quickly asking for a can of spray paint. He says he needs it to paint a fence, but when he chooses a can of gold paint, store owner Jerry Sirota refuses to make the sale.

"Why would he paint a fence gold?" Mr. Sirota explains when the boy leaves. "Sometimes kids spray it in a bag and sniff it to get high or use it to graffiti the sides of buildings."

Lombard Paint & Hardware is an example of how a small neighborhood business surviving changing times and economic uncertainty can become a big deal to its community.

Though not a major employer for East Baltimore residents, the hardware store provides its mostly blue-collar clientele with a steady and personal place to get their fixtures and tools, catch up with neighbors and, occasionally, even receive a little parental guidance.

For the 59-year-old Mr. Sirota and his two employees, keeping Lombard Paint & Hardware prosperous is a daily challenge that can involve adding new services, rearranging shelves, showing someone how to fix a washer in the kitchen faucet or refusing a sale to the wayward son of a neighborhood customer.

"You've got to try a lot of things," Mr. Sirota says. "Business is tough out there."

Mr. Sirota bought Lombard Paint & Hardware 25 years ago after the yearning to own a business outdid his complacency with the security of his post office job.

He and his father-in-law acquired the store from the Faluldraths, the family that started the store as a paint manufacturer at Ann and Lombard streets in 1891.

The facade of the old three-story building was redone a few years back to look almost exactly the way it did at the turn of the century: a first floor painted buttercup yellow, black lettering and an old-fashioned storefront window.

But inside, Mr. Sirota has used modern thinking to compete with big guys such as Hechinger and, now, to survive what looks to him and many economists like a sure recession.

Lombard Paint & Hardware's primary business when it opened 100 years ago was manufacturing paint, but Mr. Sirota did away with that part of the business when it proved unprofitable -- though the store still sells paint.

To take its place, Mr. Sirota added tool rentals, which he says now account for about 50 percent of the store's $250,000 in annual sales. Customers can rent medium-sized tools and appliances such as hammer drills, snakes, ladders and floor sanders.

The rentals are popular among neighborhood people who don't want to spend money buying such items, but the service has also managed to woo out-of-neighborhood customers into the store as well.

Mr. Sirota also spent $5,000 a few years ago to start offering United Parcel Service in the store. "It hasn't paid for itself yet," he says. "I did it on the pretext of getting people into the store to buy materials, and that's worked."

Lombard Paint & Hardware also offers all sorts of "friendly services": It lends how-to books to customers, sells stamps, does copy work and charges for some services depending on a customer's ability to pay.

Mr. Sirota says although he is willing to bend over backward to please a customer, sometimes he is forced to put his foot down when he feels his store is being taken advantage of.

"Customers sometimes by an appliance at the Inner Harbor and then bring it to us to put together" for free, he says. "I say now that it's not fair. They need to support us. if we can't manage here, where else are they going to go?"

Mr. Sirota says he can tell things are slowing down in the economy because customers are putting off buying certain items unless it is an emergency. Also, he says, his cash flow has tightened, it has been difficult to pay his creditors early to cash in on a 2 percent discount, and many of the small suppliers he buys from are going out of business.

But Mr. Sirota says he hopes that his store's diversity has positioned Lombard Paint & Hardware to weather an economic storm. He has seen other hardware stores in the neighborhood fail even in good financial times.

Despite the uncertainty of owning a business, Mr. Sirota says, he never looks back to his post office days. "There's something about a hardware store," he says, "People come in and they want to touch everything. They smell the putty, and they smell the paint."

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