Are you and Atchudta both residents of Clinton Hill?
Co-owners Atchudta Bakr and Bob Bridges both live in the neighborhood. Bob says that living nearby improves his productivity by allowing him to take on certain tasks he couldn’t do otherwise. Atchudta’s son Ali, who is the third owner in the store, lives in Kensington.
Describe your career/background.
Bob really strikes me as an intellectual and surely must be one of Brooklyn’s most thoughtful and articulate hardware guys. He and I started off talking about the dismal publishing business and what appears to be the imminent death of print media. He says he stumbled into the hardware business in 1989, when the building business became tough. He and a few friends had been renovating and managing buildings in Ft. Greene since the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. He believes that this background helped him to understand how to sell hardware and construction products. Interestingly, he wonders if he would have learned as much had he been in any other occupation. Working in the hardware business demands a vast array of knowledge. According to Bob, you’re constantly striving to learn both how to be a better businessperson and how to better communicate information to your customers. Bob loves answering customers’ questions and helping them solve problems. One of the biggest questions customers ask after discovering that he doesn’t carry a particular product is if he can recommend where else they can find it, information he usually has and is happy to share.
Please tell me about your business—how you got started, how you chose the location, and what makes your store unique.
The business was started in 2002 by Bob Bridges, Atchudta Barkr, and her son Ali and is now in its seventh year. At that time Atchudta had been working with the 1199 SEIU, the large union for health care workers, and wanted to start her own business. Ali, who was working at a hospital, also wanted to try something entrepreneurial. Meanwhile, Bob and a friend owned a hardware store on Myrtle and Adelphi for 15 years. Shortly after 9/11, Bob’s business partner wanted to go back to school and teach, which happened to be around the same time that Atchudta and her son were interested in starting a hardware business. Bob and Atchudta had met in a community organization back in the early 1980s.
They did a survey of the neighborhood and concluded that a hardware store was really needed. Atchudta brought with her many years of retail experience. She grew up in Clinton Hill and ran a food co-op in the ‘70s at Fulton and Classon Ave, and her son worked with her during that time.
What do you understand by “community” hardware store? Can you give me some examples of how you’ve been a supporter of community projects and groups?
The three owners collectively agreed on the store’s name. Their goal was to connect to the community and to have the community be part of the store. They’ve always welcomed feedback from customers on what products they should carry. For example, they now stock individual pieces of lumber in limited quantities. They designed the store to make it very hands-on and to allow customers, the majority of whom are laypeople and women, easy access to products. You can even open packages to determine if the items are really what you want or need. It’s clear to anyone who walks in that they have a strong emphasis on customer service and friendliness. Bob, Atchudta, and Ali, along with their team of three employees, are very pleasant and happy to answer your questions. And if they can’t help you, they will direct you to someone who can. It’s hardly a surprise that they have a very loyal customer base given their almost small town neighborly touch that reminds me of my father’s hardware store in rural Maryland.
Bob says that they are still tweaking their business model and acknowledges that small hardware stores like theirs are a dying breed, especially since they continue to struggle against big box competitors like Home Depot and Lowe’s. He and his co-owners, though, are committed to staying independent, and theirs is evidently a labor of love. Most of his customers are laypeople rather than contractors, and the store is set up for the lay market, including being open long hours and on Sundays. Bob emphasizes that lay people also want to shop local and tend to associate that with the quality of the neighborhood. It’s no accident that they’ve consciously cultivated this market and are most successful there. Customers typically check with them first before making a trip to Home Depot.
As for being involved in community organizations, they regret that they haven’t had the time as much in recent years. The store is open seven days a week, and the owners tend to work very long hours.
What is your opinion of the Fulton Street Business Improvement District (FSBID), which was formed last December? Were you an advocate/supporter? If so, how do you see the organization’s being instrumental in reviving the street like Myrtle has recently been revived?
Formerly one of the outspoken opponents to the BID, Atchutda currently supports it, but she hopes that it will entail more than just street cleaning. She believes what Fulton Street business owners really need is technical assistance and help on how to market themselves more effectively.
Has the store been affected by the severe recession? Have you noticed changes in customer purchases or foot traffic?
Bob sees about a 10% decline in sales over last year, something he attributes largely to the recession. He’s noticed that there’s not as much project business right now. People are evidently cutting back. Rather than replace fixtures, for example, people are choosing to repair them if they can. Usually around this time of year they’d see more move-ins and move-outs among renters like they have in the last three years particularly. They also feel that the length of time that it took to repair Fulton Street affected them adversely. During the construction, it appeared that customers were hindered from reaching the store and had trouble finding parking nearby.
They lease their space and are somewhat concerned about whether they’ll be able to afford to renew their lease when it comes due. There are three employees besides the owners—one full-time, two part-time. As with most small businesses, at any given time one of the owners is usually on the premises.
Have you organized any special promotions for Earth Day on April 22nd? What about any spring specials featuring gardening supplies, etc.?
Bob said they don’t have any specific Earth Day promotions, but they’re trying to emphasize going green. Starting this month they’ll be introducing more green products, and they’ve already begun their “green” window display. Cleaning products and supplies will be among the new items. Also, customers who spend above a certain amount will receive big green reusable eco tote bags emblazoned with the words “Love Nature.” In fact, I was the first person to receive one of these!
With spring finally here, they’re also now featuring a range of gardening supplies from seeds and all sorts of tools to pots and citronella candles.
If you haven’t done so already, check them out soon!