Wineka column: Final goodbyes at Bernhardt Hardware

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 26, 2012

SALISBURY — Though Paul Bernhardt died in early April, the manager at his hardware store still writes him notes.
R.C. Kesler says people might think he’s crazy, but he walks the notes back to Bernhardt’s office and tapes them up.
The notes, usually written on legal-sized paper, basically say how much Kesler misses Bernhardt, who was a great friend.
“I just can’t stand the thought of him not being there,” Kesler says.
You probably know this by now, but the days are winding down at Bernhardt Hardware Co. at 113 N. Main St., and Kesler hopes the liquidation of the business — and decades of memories — are leaving the way Bernhardt would have wanted.
Kesler, Jerry King and Shirley Boone are the only employees left.
A complete going-out-of-business sale has entered its eighth week.
Everything, unless otherwise noted, is heading out the door at 60 percent off the marked price. Whole walls are bare, and the old tile floor reveals places where display cases used to be.
“I think he would have done it this way,” Kesler says of Bernhardt. “It has just kind of been word of mouth.”
Some people have walked in and bought entire sections of merchandise such as knives, ammunition or door knobs.
Others stop in simply wanting something from Bernhardt Hardware — a nostalgic gesture, if nothing else.
Because of the hot summer temperatures, the store still has a large inventory of winter sleds for sale — Bernhardt was always known for having sleds at the ready for the first snow.
But 300 bags of Ice Melt are down to one. All the bicycles and little red wagons have been sold. The last tomato plants were given away.
The Tru Value Hardware signs still hanging high inside the store have to come down by Aug. 21, but otherwise there are no deadlines, no set closing date.
“Just when the boss lady says don’t come in anymore,” Kesler says.
• • •
When he needs a smoke, King walks outside and sits on an overturned bucket near the front door.
But he also patrols the echoing floors inside, as he has done for 42 years, helping people who still prefer an independently owned, downtown store over big-box retailers in strip shopping centers.
Boone holds down her familiar spot next to the cash register in front of the store.
“We’ve all been here a long time,” Boone says in the understatement of the half-century. She has been here since 1959.
For Kesler, it has been 34 years — and they haven’t always been harmonious. Sometimes he and Bernhardt, because of mutual stubbornness, would butt heads over store matters, forcing Paul’s daughter, Eva Bingham, into a role as peacemaker.
“We were both hot-headed,” Kesler says, noting that he quit four different times.
But the men always found a way to patch things up. On the weekends before Bernhardt died, it wasn’t unusual to see Kesler and him having a Saturday night dinner at the Stag ‘n’ Doe or driving to Troutman for a Sunday lunch after church.
Just back from washing the store’s truck, Kesler wraps additional 49-cent bags of peanuts and sets them on top of the oven they are roasted in.
He ties the bags up with specially rolled dog ears, taught to him long ago by Agnes Nassar.
Greg Culp, owner of Hap’s Grill across the street, has bought the small roasting oven. Though he’s not yet sure of the schedule, Culp plans to offer the peanuts at his business after Bernhardt’s closes.
• • •
Frances Driscoll has been coming into Bernhardt Hardware her whole life. “Unfortunately, yes, that’s getting to be a long time,” she said, smiling. “… It just won’t be like Salisbury without Bernhardt’s.”
The end began, of course, with Bernhardt’s passing. He was an amazing man — a great retailer, promoter, artist and craftsman. He built the delightful Christmas decorations for his store.
Likewise, Bernhardt loved history, conversation, politics and his fellow man.
He was mayor of Salisbury from 1967-71 and a City Council member for 12 years overall. He served on many merchant and community boards, including a chairmanship with the Rowan Vocational Workshop.
Some people say Bernhardt kept his store open as long as he did so his employees had a place to work and his developmentally challenged son, Paul Jr., had a place to go.
Paul Jr. still reports to the store every day, answers the telephone at times and hangs out in the office.
“He’s not happy about it closing,” Kesler says.
Greer Hardware started in this location in 1928. Leake Bernhardt, Paul’s father, served as store manager. Paul joined the store as assistant manager in 1946 after his service with the Army Air Corps in World War II.
When Greer Hardware liquidated the store in 1961, Bernhardt Hardware took its place. Eva Bingham has said the three downtown buildings that make up the business are for sale.
• • •
Plenty of merchandise remains in the store, despite the empty feeling.
“Yeah, we have a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Kesler says.
One shopping cart pulled to the middle offers a variety of V-belts for vehicles. You can have the whole cartload for $50.
Another buggy contains cans of paint at $2 a gallon.
There are old store signs — hand-painted by Bernhardt himself — for sale. They used to identify various departments, such as “Gadgets and Gaskets” or “Fire Screens and Tool Sets.”
You can still have a key made here. Buckets of nails remain and things such as table legs, vacuum cleaner bags, switchplates, address numbers and handles for axes, brooms and shovels.
A box near the front door has 75-cent screwdrivers.
Variety Produce in Rockwell still supplies the raw peanuts (for roasting) and ripe tomatoes for sale each day.
• • •
On this particular Tuesday afternoon, Louise Shive buys a rake and a drop cord to help her with lawn work.
Shopping with Shive, Faynell Frye Bramwell purchases a bicycle helmet, because she plans to ride the Virginia Creeper Trail with her grandchildren.
“It’s sad to see all the places like this go,” Bramwell says.
Felix Miller buys five bags of roasted peanuts — the best in town, he says.
“I still got a wheelbarrow I bought from them six years ago,” Miller says.
Driscoll and her friend, Carolyn Blackman, go to art class every Tuesday, followed by lunch and an afternoon shopping adventure.
This Tuesday’s adventure took in Bernhardt Hardware, where they purchased things such as picture hangers, sliders for the bottom of chairs and cookie cutters.
“There’s so much useful stuff here,” Blackman says. “I’m only going home with the essentials today.”
Lorna Medinger drove specifically to Bernhardt’s to find a bulb for her Itty Bitty Reading Light. King and Kesler tracked it down for her within minutes.
Medinger ended up buying five, recognizing that when she needed her next one, Bernhardt Hardware likely would be gone.
• • •
Kesler feels a sense of satisfaction that certain decorations and displays from the store have landed in the right hands.
The Rowan Museum received the clown playing the organ. Fine Frame Gallery bought the North Pole exhibit. Rick’s Barbecue will end up with Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, and Rowan Public Library will be getting Bernhardt’s circus memorabilia.
“I know that’s where Paul would want it to go,” Kesler says.
Near the cash register, there’s a small snapshot of Bernhardt in the winter, shoveling the sidewalk in front of the store.
Perfect for all that it captures, the picture is tacked up somewhat randomly near Boone’s cash register.
It’s one more note to an old friend.
Bernhardt Hardware is open from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@