Harry Cawley was a veteran train man, a conductor for the North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad, when the opportunity came along to try a different trade: the hardware business. He didn’t know much about it, recalls his son, Dan Cawley, co-owner of Harold’s True Value. But Harry was handy and industrious, and in 1951 he bought an existing store, Noyes Hardware and Paint, just west of the el station. He did well enough to take over two more hardware stores in Evanston.
In 1977 the family opened at their current location, 2912 Central St., buying out the existing proprietor, Harold Moshen, who had been at the site since 1953. Later the other two stores were closed. The Central Street site expanded to its current 6,000-square-foot space when they took over a barber shop next door in the early ’80s.
Harold’s sells both to businesses and individuals, and stocks an enormous inventory of more than 50,000 individual items.
“It was a lot to learn,” Mr. Cawley concedes. “We [the family] kind of got thrown into the mix. But you’ve got to survive, so you figure it out.”
Mr. Cawley, 82, still works most every day at the store, which is open six days a week, along with his son, John, and daughter, Susan Cawley Warak. John’s son, 16-year-old Patrick, the fourth-generation Cawley in the business, helps out from time to time as well.
The hardware trade is one of the last mom-and-pop businesses in the United States. There are more than 10,000 hardware stores in the nation, Mr. Cawley says. The True-Value chain, which bought Harold’s in 1951, operates more than 4,000.
The business is fairly recession-proof, he notes. In hard times people will forgo hiring someone to do repairs and will instead do their own. But they still need tools.
Harold’s is divided into 19 departments, including paint, lawn and gardening, electrical, automotive, nuts and bolts, keys, repairs, pet supplies and appliances.
One advantage of being small, Mr. Cawley says, is that the family can make decisions more or less on the spot. “We go into our office in back and argue it out and decide pretty quickly what needs to be done,” he says. “Big companies have a harder time doing that.
The biggest challenge, they agree, is plumbing. With the City’s old housing stock—some buildings date back more than 100 years—and the fact that builders and plumbers “did things differently back then,” they will encounter some unique challenges. But almost nothing is impossible for them. “You just have to figure it out,” says Dan Cawley.
He likes the business. “You’re dealing with people all the time—a couple of hundred a day—lots of repeat customers. Every day we have different challenges.”
“You never know what you’re going to see when you get to work,” adds his son, John.
Asked what it’s like to work for her father, Susan laughs and says, “We do great. He only fires me once in a while!” More seriously, she adds, “I’m so lucky to have worked with my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins” back when the family operated three stores. “And I’ve enjoyed learning the business. Not everyone knows how to use these tools, how to cut glass and pipe and make keys and do all the other things we do. I learn from the tradesmen too.”
One of them, Paul Hewitt, an Evanston remodeler, says he’s been shopping at Harold’s for 50 years. “There are a lot of advantages to patronizing a local store,” he says. “There’s the convenience. Plus they have a lot of expertise.”
Even at 82, Dan Cawley still likes coming to work. “I’m not going to sit home. I’d go nuts sitting in front of a computer all day and shuffling paper. That doesn’t appeal to me,” he says. “This way I get to know people, all our repeat customers. It keeps you moving, keeps you young.”