Michael Johnson / Livingston County News
Brothers Bobby (left) and Anthony "Dickie" Christiano stand among some of the last of Christiano Hardware's inventory as the two brothers get set to close the family-owned business after 70 years of service.
END OF AN ERA
Christiano Hardware closing after 70-year run
In the year of its 70th anniversary, Christiano’s Hardware store in Leicester will be closing its doors.
The story of A. R. Christiano Hardware is an inspiring one of substantial business growth and diversification right through the early 1990s. But for the past two decades it is a sadder story of a business and beloved neighborhood institution succumbing to market forces — the same forces which have brought down so many family-owned operations on Main Street, U.S.A.
The story of Christiano Hardware is also the story of six men — three of them sharing the “A.R. Christiano” name — who built their business and persevered in its years of operation.
“If you can’t find it — go to Christiano’s. They’ll have it.
“That’s what everybody used to say. And it was true. We had everything here,” reminisces Anthony Richard Christiano III, best known to most folks as “Dickie.”
“It was a complete center. We repaired anything. We rented everything,” said Dickie’s older brother Roger.
Roger, Dickie and Bobby Christiano represent the third generation of owners of Christiano Hardware. Their grandfather — Dickie’s namesake — was operating a prosperous farm during World War II when he realized the best way to make sure he had a supply of all those nuts, bolts, pipes, pulleys, chains, and assorted other parts and tools which a farming operation constantly needs would be to sell those things himself.
Accordingly, Christiano purchased the McVean hardware store on Main Street, but — never one to do things in a small way — he also purchased the Stroble grocery next door. The two stores were physically connected with a mutual addition that filled the alley which had formerly separated the buildings. It all become one large hardware store —with two separate entrances until being remodeled with a full plate glass facade in the 1960s.
When the store was up and running for a few years, A. R. made sure his customers would never have a problem with parking. He purchased and demolished a warehouse across the street and created a spacious lot.
Always dedicated to his first love of farming, A.R. entrusted a great deal of the hardware store responsibilities to his sons, Anthony Jr. and Francis. In 1966 these brothers inherited the business and gave it a new twist, with emphasis upon tire sales and automotive repair.
Later, Francis’ sons Roger, Dickie and Bobby would take the reins, and put their own individual stamps upon Christiano Hardware.
It is noteworthy, however, that neither Anthony or Francis ever actually retired. Both men continued to serve customers in the store until almost their dying day. Anthony passed away in 2010; Francis in 2011.
Expansion came swiftly when, in 1949, a shop addition was constructed to accommodate the store’s new John Deere dealership. The shop had state-of-the-art subfloor steam heating. Added to the inventory of Deere tractors were farm implements and attachments manufactured by New Idea and planters manufactured by Ontario.
By this date — as is confirmed in a preserved Livingston County Leader full page advertisement still pinned to the wall — the store also had American Standard plumbing and heating fixtures and G.E. stoves, refrigerators and freezers. Christiano Hardware was also supplying heating and plumbing parts and doing service and installations.
By the mid-1950s the Deere farm tractors were sharing space with another featured product, Wheel Horse (later Toro) lawn mowers. The popular lawn mower business would expand into sales and service for rototillers, post hole drillers, chain saws and “weedeaters.”
About this time, the shop tire changer was being used as frequently for automotive repairs as for farm equipment, and the decision was made to begin selling and servicing car tires.
Tire sales and service and automotive repairs had largely replaced the farm tractor and implement business by 1968 when a four-bay auto shop was built along the building backside. A subsidiary tire re-treading business operated off site, in the old Cuylerville school. Al Lorenz was hired to perform on-the-road tire servicing and sales.
Dickie started working full time in the family business right out of high school.
“When I started here in 1967, things were really going,” he confirms “It was one of those kinds of places. We were really diversified — and we’d be open at 5 in the morning!”
During its peak years the A. R. Christiano Hardware store employed four or five sales clerks, three mechanics and a plumber. Including family members, there were 16 people on the payroll. Gross annual sales exceeded $1 million.
It seemed everyone was a customer: people and companies.
“We had wonderful institutional and business customers,” Bobby recollected. “We did work for the college in Geneseo, the prisons in Groveland, the salt mine in Retsof, all the high schools, the Mount Morris Dam, and the canning factories.”
Early on, Christiano Hardware garnered a reputation for service as well as sales, It was a place to get a broken window fixed, have a welding repair made, get blades and chains sharpened, and duplicate keys. Meanwhile, the store itself carried full lines of hardware fasteners, electrical and plumbing supplies, paint and sundries, and hand and power tools.
In the 1960s Christiano Hardware affiliated itself with Temco Farm Supply, which offered a full catalogue of farm hardware merchandise. A decade later the store forged a relationship with the TruValue hardware cooperative which was to last more than 25 years. TruValue was succeeded by Pro Hardware and then by Hardware Retailers Inc.
“We always had two hardware companies we bought from, but for the last 15 years, we’ve basically been independent,” Dickie said.
Because of each family member’s longevity in the store, many customers of Christiano Hardware have memories of being served by all three Christiano family generations, and among the Christianos themselves there are vivid memories of serving generations of customers.
“We’ve had such loyal customers over the years, and have become great friends with so many of them,” Bobby vouched.
But the years passed and the box stores began carrying identical or similar products with discounted prices, and the manufacturers and wholesalers began favoring the boxes, and their large volume purchases. Likewise, franchised service outlets came into existence, bringing competition to that component of the business.
There were fewer dairy farms in operation. Many had become so large they maintained their own stock of hardware items. Then Internet buying became yet another market force pulling customers away from small retailers.
“Stores like ours put a lot of manufacturers on the map, but now they don’t want us,” Dickie said.
“And a lot of the hardware companies now aren’t really co-ops, there just creditors,” he lamented. “There is no more sharing of advertising costs.”
With the store closing imminent, the brothers are naturally interested in making sure tenants are found. The rear auto bays will continue to be leased to Lightning Bolt. Rich White, the former Geneseo chief of police, may be leasing the shop area for his mower repair business.
There have been inquiries about the store itself. Dickie believes that sales of mostly auto parts, with some vestige of the traditional hardware merchandise, might make for a viable retailer in the old building.