Phillips Hardware: Old values, new ideas
Friday afternoon, and the customer at the counter in Phillips Hardware on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs breaks into a startled smile when proprietress Donna Leon tells her she's just saved more than six dollars on her purchase. Over the next 40 minutes, Ms. Leon (nee Phillips) and her sister Susan Phillips will explain to eight more customers that they are receiving a 15-percent discount on their purchase in celebration of the store's 81st anniversary. The news evokes gratitude, smiles, and the question: Why the celebration at 81 years?
Photo by M.C. Wallo
"We do it every year, not just on special years," Ms. Phillips says of last weekend's storewide discount. It's a long-standing tradition that the sisters admit has been observed for longer than they can remember.
For all the changes, there is timelessness about their enterprise. The Phillips sisters, the family's third generation to operate the old-time hardware store, are less focused on the dates and details of the past 81 years, and more attuned to the traditions, about which they have great acuity. Ms. Phillips brings out a venerable folder filled with old photographs that chronicle the history of their family business. Among the photographs is a dog-eared June 1, 1939, receipt for supplies purchased by C.J. Darling, including a pound of six-penny nails for 12 cents.
Ms. Phillips produces a pound of the six-pennies that now sell for $1.29. "The price of iron has gone up," she says. "Recent deliveries are $2.59 a pound, but we bought these at the lower price so we kept the lower price."
Phillips Hardware was founded by their grandfather, John Phillips, in 1928, when he was an entrepreneurial 22-year-old. It was housed in a single room on the ground floor of the Oakmont Hotel. John Phillips nurtured and preserved the business through The Great Depression of the 1930s. Circuit Avenue was evolving into a retail hub with most of Martha's Vineyard's 19th century lodgings moving to Kennebec Avenue and other neighboring streets. The store grew until it occupied most of the ground floor. Eventually, Mr. Phillips bought the building.
When he retired in 1984, he passed the business to his son Robert, who in 1998 passed it to his daughters. Family is important to both women. Ms. Leon wants her father to contribute to the discussion of the store, so she calls him in Pompano Beach, Fla., where he and his wife Pauline live.
"In the old days, my Dad sold washers and dryers and refrigerators," Mr. Phillips recalls. "There was a restaurant in the building. I remember taking the wall down when it shut down, and expanding the business."
Mr. Phillips is proud of the way the business has been able to change in response to consumer culture. "We quit selling appliances," he explains, "but I began selling carpet, linoleum, vinyl, and wallpaper. It was a good business. Times change, though, and the girls put Rosebud (a balloon and party supply store) in that space. We've all made changes to the business," he says, adding that not all ideas were winners. "I put in a fishing department - rods, Penn reels, and line, that sort of thing. It wasn't very successful," he admits.