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"Fair Dealing"
Richardson's Hardware in Marlinton

Text and photographs by Carl E. Feather

General Edward Greer
Co-owner Charles "Googie" Richardson stands behind the counter of his family-owned hardware store, founded in 1901 by grandfather, C.J. Richardson. Photograph by Carl E. Feather.

Charles McElwee “Googie” Richardson III, 84, admits that the way his family’s furniture and hardware store in Marlinton does business is outdated. But after more than a century of successfully doing business “the old way,” there’s little point in changing.

“It was built to do business 100 years ago,” Googie says of the three-story building that houses the eclectic store. “We’ve been advised not to modernize it; it might do more harm than good.”

Googie is the third generation of Richardsons to own C.J. Richardson Hardware and Furniture; his co-owner son, Terry, is the fourth. By their reckoning, the store is the oldest family-owned business in Pocahontas County. It’s certainly one of the most nostalgic.

Bulk hardware is stocked on shelves that cover the wall behind the wooden counter that runs for most of the store’s 100-foot depth. Three rolling wooden ladders, one of them original to the 1905 building, provide employees access to the merchandise that stretches from the pine floors to the 12-foot-tall tin ceiling.

The task of filling orders from this wall of shelves and bins falls upon a half dozen clerks who hustle about the store from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, answering questions, taking phone calls, writing up orders, and scheduling deliveries with early 20th-century tools — pens, paper, landline telephones, credit account registers, calculators, receipt books, and want lists maintained on paper. The only computer in the place is used for bookkeeping, and it was just in the past decade that Richardson’s began accepting credit cards.

A hardbound journal kept at a midpoint opening in the long counter is used to keep track of special orders, deliveries, service calls, and other events — a system that’s been used for more than a century.

“Anything that comes in and we have to remember as far as sales, service, this is how we keep track of it,” says Terry, who pulls a 1906 ledger from the shelf for comparison. “One hundred and four years later, we are still using the same system.”

Likewise, many of the store’s original fixtures for sorting and storing bulk hardware remain in service. Triangle-shaped drawers hold all manner of fasteners in free-standing, hexagonal units built from wood and painted black. A section of one wall is devoted to legacy wooden bins containing all manner of galvanized pipe fittings.

The store’s center aisle accommodates pegboard and free-standing, revolving displays, but veteran clerks say these are relatively new merchandising concessions. They recall a time when the entire aisle was a row of tables upon which featured merchandise was displayed. That tradition is still practiced toward the front of the store, where small appliances and seasonal needs are kept front and center for all who enter the store’s heavy wood-and-glass door.

The first two stories of the Marlinton landmark are dedicated to selling — hardware, paint, household needs, and appliances on the first floor; furniture, bedding, and flooring on the second. The third floor is for warehousing; a freight elevator provides access to the upper floors. When the elevator is lowered, one sees that storage bins for pipe fittings were built into a shaft wall. Store clerks describe the building’s top floor as a place of discovery and history. A while back, one of the clerks stumbled across a wooden case of cross-cut saws still in the original packing from the early 1900’s.

Any deficiencies in functionality in the original store are mitigated by a modern, metal building that stands across a parking lot and provides more warehousing for lumber, drywall, and other large merchandise.

Googie and Terry oversee the entire operation. “I do mostly purchasing and deal with the paperwork,” Googie says as we sit in the store’s office, a cramped space under the stairs that lead to the second floor. “I do occasionally wait on customers, but I can’t lift heavy things.”

“He’s the CEO,” says Terry. “I spend most of my time on the floor, and he spends most of his time back here in the office.”

Whether in the office or behind the counter, Richardson values of hard work and honesty govern the way they do business, Googie says.

“We’ve always been honest, fair-minded, and fair dealing,” he says. “I’m sure not everyone is going to agree with that, but I think honesty has been one of the biggest factors [in the store’s longevity].”

Googie says his grandfather, C.J. Richardson, was a mining engineer who grew up in Alabama and went to work for a gold mine operation in South America. He contracted malaria and was advised by his physician brother, Dr. T.S. Richardson, to move to a region with a healthful climate. C.J. chose the Virginia/West Virginia border, more so for its abundant fish and wildlife than healthful environment.

As the logging boom spread across the state line from the forests of western Virginia, C.J. detected opportunity. In 1901 he established his hardware business in Marlinton on the west side of the Greenbrier River, near the spot where routes 219 and 55 intersect today. He built nearby a stately home that stands to this day adjacent to the Pocahontas County Museum on Route 219.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.