After 42 years at the helm, Larry Gray sets a new course
Alexandria, VA – In 1979, Larry Gray opened Village Hardware in the Hollin Hall Shopping Center on Fort Hunt Road in Alexandria. He had worked for his father in the construction business for a few years before that and saw the need for a well-stocked, service-oriented resource for the busy and booming building industry.
Gray created what was to become a landmark and a legend in the neighborhood. At a time when impersonal big-box hardware department stores began to proliferate on Route 1, Village Hardware stayed the course with extraordinary customer service and a deep commitment to community. For many neighborhood teenagers and young adults, their first job at Village Hardware was a launching pad where they were honed by Gray’s incredible work ethic, routines, and habits, traits that no doubt continued to serve them throughout their careers.
Village Hardware was a family affair. Gray’s children worked at the store and his wife, Janet, would often grill lunch or dinner for all employees behind the shop. “I knew they were all working so hard, especially in the spring when they were hauling bags of mulch,” said Janet. “They didn’t have time for lunch! So I made it for them.”
The store is chock-full of many thousands of items on display and in easy reach for shoppers of all kinds, whether professional contractors, do-it-yourselfers, or intrepid weekend yard warriors. Each day, employees set many items on display in the front parking lot for people to shop. Seasonal offerings range from snow blowers and sleds to bird feeders, seeds and garden stakes, to lawnmowers, wheelbarrows, rakes, and fire pits. Village Hardware has anything and everything you want for your home and yard.
Can’t find what you need? Someone is there to help. Not sure what you need? Someone is there to help you with that too. Longtime employee JT Mertins said, “Husbands would send in their wives to fetch something. These requests tended to be amusing because sometimes what was needed wasn’t well explained and usually required phone calls home. In the time that it took to figure out what was needed, the husbands themselves could have been in-and-out in half the time.”
Gray recognized his suburban customers’ love of grilling and dedicated the store’s basement to all things Weber and barbecue. From dozens of grill models to all kinds of accessories, as well as pans, utensils, charcoal, wood for smoking, sauces, rubs, and cookbooks, Gray’s Weber Room took on a life of its own. Doe-eyed customers became downright giddy upon discovering its bounties. Village Hardware didn’t merely sell the grills. Delivery, assembly, and demonstrations as needed were all part of the full-service package.
Service was always Gray’s guiding light. “Many customers didn’t realize that the store had a workbench in the basement where employees occasionally helped customers with various issues,” explained Mertins. “Shortening table legs, loosening nuts on various items such as kids’ bikes, faucets, an occasional firearm, drilling out holes, cutting glass for an artist decorating cigar boxes, cutting down bolts. The store prided itself on customer service.”
Gray led by example. “He never sat in his office,” said former employee Jay Lingenfelter. “He was always working with the rest of us, restocking shelves or running bags of seed out to a customer’s car. He’s a hands-on boss, leading from the front.” Lingenfelter appreciated all that Gray did for the community too. He hired locally to serve local needs. “It was one of the best jobs I ever had,” said Lingenfelter.
Gray took time to carefully select his successor. After reviewing several options, he sold the store to Aubuchon Hardware, a fourth-generation, family-owned chain of 100 stores in the Northeast founded in 1908. Incoming General Manager Troy Richard has some 30 years’ experience in the hardware business. Even with that pedigree, he knows he has big shoes to fill.
“The community love for Village Hardware is obvious, and it’s a shared mentality for us. We will continue to put customer service first,” said Richard. “We are a family business, and we treat our customers and our employees like family. Happy employees lead to happy customers.”
And so, after 42 years of faithful, expert customer and community service, Larry Gray will have left Village Hardware by the end of April. “It’s very difficult to say goodbye,” he said, and Janet agreed. Even though the time is right and they are ready for their next chapter, they are emotional about leaving their labor of love. Gray is looking forward to moving to Florida for golfing, cycling, relaxing, and spending time with his family doing what he loves. Aside from running the greatest neighborhood hardware store there ever was, of course.