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Marine Home Center

Marine Home Center: How do you make The Perfect Store?

View of the Creeks from back lot of MHC
View of private residences adjoining MHC

It’s Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and the Marine Home Center will be closed for the next two days. Everyone who came up to open their houses for the summer is in the store with a check list. Everyone. Weekdays in May are almost as busy but the clients are contractors and tradesmen and they usually know what they want, what it’s called and where to find it. They cruise past the paint counter, rattle off the list of what they’ve taken from the shelves while the sales agent pulls up a pink slip, says “Which account Ben?”, “Randolf” says the painter and it’s done.

This is not how it goes on Memorial Day Saturday.

“It’s like a leash, a clasp” the mid-thirties, slightly built, balding man asks Andy in Hardware. “It’s got a hook, a thing-a ma jiggy with an eye.”

 Andy is baffled, “Could you take a picture of it?”

“Damn, I knew this was going to happen.”

The man tries to make its shape with his hands, “It’s like a clasp.”

“Do you put a padlock on it?”

“Yes!”

Bingo. Andy leads the customer to a display of gate latches or hasps as they’re called. On his way there he passes someone who asks if they sell dusting things and Andy directs him to Housewares and a young woman asks where she can find things that hold downspouts and he tells her he’ll be with her in a minute. 

It is 1:30 and this has been going on since about 9:00. With all hands on deck, Ron Foster, the store’s General Manager is in the shelving aisle helping a woman find the right size brackets. She is already carrying several long rods so Ron stretches out his arms, “Can I give you a hand with that?” and carries her bundle to the special orders counter where he also checks her out. He passes Chris from Hardware who has just located the saw blade someone needs for stone cutting and is saying, “No problem sir. Have a good day.” Chick, who has just celebrated thirty years with the business and is the manager of Hardware, Plumbing and Paint, is helping a seven foot tall man find the right ¾ inch screw, “Oh, and where’s the right nut for it?” This will be a 22cent sale.

Their movements through the squirrely aisles, around sharp corners, along floors that rise and fall are dance-like in gracefulness and dance-like too in the way they move fluidly from customer to customer, like the Right and Left Grand of a square dance. Unlike so many other stores where salespeople huddle together in deep conversation and look affronted if a customer interrupts, the Home Center staff are always on the move, making contact with anyone who looks bewildered, which on Memorial Day Saturday, is pretty much everyone.

How do they do it? Why is the store’s staff, to a person, so exemplary? In a time of heartless monopolies, how (and why) does Marine Home Center represent a monopoly business that still behaves graciously? How have they created a hardware store that even my summer houseguests think of as one of the “go to” spots on their island visits like the bar at Lola’s or like Steps Beach.

In my next couple of posts, I’m going to see if I can answer this question.

Post Script :I first thought of writing about The Marine Home Center when I heard rumors that it might move, or worse, be sold. These are old rumors but they’ve surged recently because of the planned grocery store development on Old South Road. The return of real estate boom times has made people jittery about any undeveloped waterfront lots and Marine Home Center waterfront is now legendary, even if no customer has ever seen it. Intercontinental Real Estate’s claim that they bought the Marine Home Center in 2007 to “grow the business” not to develop the land is seven years old and those were mostly recession years. What is the statute of limitations on it?

But unless they are the best dissemblers I’ve ever encountered, no one, from top management down, sees the business going anywhere. Richard, in Special Orders pointed to the fact that the store had just put new roofs and siding on several buildings and new white floors. “Would you do that if you were going to tear everything down?” GM Ron Foster chuckled when I asked the apparently all too familiar question, “If it’s moving, I’m the last to know.”

Ron led me on a tour of the back lot. Whether or not he intended this tour to be a reality check to waterfront development fantasies, it had that effect.  Behind the lumber sheds are privately owned houses. What waterfront the Home Center owns is limited to a narrow stretch of land behind the main building, the width of one, maybe two house lots. Moreover its frontage is on The Creeks, not the Harbor, lovely but also intermittently mosquito infested or brown and dry.

Well that was a relief. I had imagined my articles as a bittersweet version of the Joni Mitchell song, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone…” Now they can be simply an exploration of a business model, that (cross your fingers) we’re lucky to have in our midst.