By Maxim Tamarov
In his more than 24 years of operating Woodside Ace Hardware, Paul Leavy hadn’t seen anything like it.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, a constant line of people standing six feet apart waited to enter the store. Customers were hoping to buy mulch, soil, paint, personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies, propane tanks, wasp traps, trash pickers, hose attachments, seed starter and flowers. Only eight or nine people were allowed in at a time resulting in a one in, one out policy. Ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit Winthrop, Leavy’s store has been unusually busy.
“I’ve seen it like this a day here or a day there, but I’ve never seen anything like it day after day after day for two months,” Leavy said. “Every day is like a Saturday in springtime.”
In March, Governor Charlie Baker issued an order that defined the “Covid-19 Essential Services” that were allowed to continue operating brick and mortar facilities during the pandemic. Among those were, “Workers in hardware … with reduced staff to ensure continued operations.”
Woodside, while still open at 7:30 a.m., began closing its doors to the public at 3 p.m. instead of the pre-pandemic 6 p.m. The store also stopped opening on Sundays. For a few Tuesdays since the outbreak, Woodside closed entirely so that the crew could stock orders and organize the store.
Amid fears of catching or spreading the virus, about two thirds of Woodside’s employees took advantage of the option to stay home. Leavy did not furlough anyone, and is, in fact, now asking his crew to come back and help. Only seven of his 24 employees, the “stalwarts” as he called them, had stayed on.
“We’ve been managing it pretty well,” said Chris Beaudry, a Woodside sales associate who on Friday was busy carrying soil to people’s cars. “Overall it hasn’t been too bad.”
According to Leavy, however, the crew is exhausted.
There is a lot of work to be done after customers have cleared out. The crew usually takes a short break after 3 p.m. and then stays until 6 or 7 p.m. to make deliveries, clean the store and restock the shelves.
“If you look at our shelves, [they] are sometimes bare of cleaning supplies,” Leavy said. “We have been running out consistently.”
Leavy himself has been up at 4 a.m. every morning, ordering PPE and praying that the hand wipes, gloves, disinfectant sprays and masks he needs have shown up at the warehouse. So far, he’s secured 32,000 masks from China and is awaiting their shipment.
Customs, he said, has been “holding everything up,” making shipping difficult. But he has hope that another shipment of 12,000 masks will soon show up as well.
“That’s 44,000 masks,” Leavy said. “I think that’s an incredible number of anything for a small store.”
And Woodside has been careful to keep the price down on masks, selling boxes of 50 for $34.99 even as individual masks go for up to $3 a piece elsewhere.
Yet Coronavirus-related supplies are not the only things people are buying.
Jenn McMahan had been putting off work on her patio every year, calling the project of putting sand between bricks so that weeds don’t grow there “tedious.” Her trip to Woodside was her first outing during the pandemic.
“We have a lot of time on our hands right now, so tedious works,” McMahan said as she packed her white SUV with sand and hanging flower pots.
“While I was here, I snagged some plants that my husband might kill me about,” McMahan admitted. “These are some petunias and over here we have some words that I can’t say: calibrachoa.”
Chris Ackell, who lives around the corner from Woodside, has been frequenting the hardware store since moving to Winthrop four months ago. He and his roommates have been buying propane, gardening tools and mulch.
Sherry Wallerce, co-owner of the Winthrop Marketplace, has been at Woodside almost daily, buying everything from garden soil to bird feeders.
And Dennis Fogg, another longtime patron, was at the store on Saturday to buy paint for a railing. Due to fears of an Asian giant hornet invasion, he picked up some wasp traps as well.
For hardware stores in town, the business side of things seems to be going well.
“I can’t complain about that,” Leavy said of the people waiting outside of Woodside. “Sometimes I wish it wasn’t as busy as it is.”
Across town, a similar refrain.
Owner and manager of Shirley True Value Hardware Dennis Prew said the store was, “Understaffed and overburdened,” but that customers were flocking to the store in record numbers.
“The business has literally doubled because everybody is home,” Prew said. “Everybody is doing projects.”
According to Prew, the Shirley crew started closing an hour earlier each day after the pandemic hit as well as shutting down for lunch. They, like Woodside, lost some employees due to coronavirus concerns. They, too, were running out of PPE and cleaning supplies. They, too, are taking precautions.
“People are on board with that,” Prew said. “Everybody’s got a mask on. We got plexiglass at the register. We’re constantly cleaning stuff.”
For shoppers like McMahan, the silver lining to the pandemic is that she gets to spend more “quality” time at home with her family.
For the local hardware stores, it’s the money that said shoppers are bringing in.
“People are shopping local more than ever before,” Prew said. “We’re here on the front doing what we can for the good people of Winthrop.”
Maxim Tamarov is a freelance reporter covering coronavirus and environmental issues for the Winthrop Sun Transcript. Send comments or story ideas to [email protected]