Tommy Pope would resume telling the history of his family’s hardware business in North Carolina, when just like that, someone else would stop him to ask where they could find this or that, or to say how sorry they were to hear that Pope’s True Value in Chatham County will close its doors for good.
Quartz heaters, copper cleaner, an electrical conduit, light bulbs, a caulking gun – with a lifetime of practice under his belt, Pope never had to look twice for any of the thousands of items on his shelves.
One man seemed close to tears as he told Pope how sad he was to hear the store was going out of business.
Many customers feel the same way.
“If you needed something and you didn’t know where to go, they almost always had it,” said Lilyan Levine, who borrowed a moment from Pope for help finding a cleaner for her copper pots.
“That stuff is getting gone,” he told her. “And we’ve just got one or two silver cleaners left.”
Empty racks are restocked no more. But the 66-year-old Pope says he is ready to move on, and when leases for Pope’s Hardware stores in Durham and Coats come up for renewal, as the one here at Cole Park Plaza has, they will probably close too.
He is ready to slow down, he said, after working in the hardware business for his family on and off since he was a teen.
The store at Cole Park Plaza, between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, opened Nov. 1, 1984, and has 10 employees.
“We’ve had a lot of fun watching this store grow,” he said. “We’ve watched families move in and watched little kids grow up, and now they got kids of their own.”
What’s the most important thing he learned in his 66 years?
“Keep God first in your life,” he said. “Keep good people and good friendships. If you treat people wrong, it will come back and bite you.”
Pope, whose father was a Church of God minister, started as a kid working summer jobs at his grandfather’s hardware stores. Today he is vice president, working out of the store at Cole Park Plaza. His uncle, William Pope, is head of the Pope’s Hardware company, and his brother Donald manages another store.
He joined the Army in 1966, went through officer cadet school and came out a 1st lieutenant in 1969.
“It was a tough decision to get out. I might have stayed in the Army if I didn’t have the family business to run,” Pope said. “The family, they begged me to come home and help with the business.”
He moved back home and earned a degree in accounting from Campbell University, which helped him manage affairs. “It’s a tough business,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a tough business. More so now than it was. The retail business is a lot different today.”
What’s tougher? Regulations, taxes and labor laws, he said.
The Cole Park store weathered the opening of an Ace Hardware farther down U.S. 15-501, but suffered a hit when the road widened to four lanes. A new Walmart being built close to the Orange County line would likely have hurt too.
Perhaps the biggest change Pope has noticed has been in customer service.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have good employees, but people have changed a lot,” he said. “You go to big-box stores, Kmart and Home Depot, they just kind of throw it up there for people.”
His central tenet is that customer service is a public service.
“People come in, they have a problem, they don’t know how to fix it. What this is for, what this glue is used for, all that stuff helps people, it helps them with their problems and they leave happy.”
The service mantra at Pope’s included sharpening knives and tools and in-store repair on appliances, lawn mowers, small engines and chainsaws.
“We want to make this store their store,” Pope said.
Customers return the love. Last week, it hardly seemed far-fetched to think that most would have swapped the 20 percent discount on all items for news that Pope’s would stay open after March.
“I wanted to find someone to buy this and keep it running for the neighborhood,” Pope said.
As for him, retirement will give him more time to devote to his wife, three daughters and nine grandchildren, more time for projects at home in Irwin.
“The lease was up this year, this month, and that’s sort of what brought us to the decision to close the store. We didn’t want to sign another lease. I just figured it would let us concentrate on our Durham and Coats stores until their lease runs out.”
Neighbors will also miss the convenience of a small post office branch located in the store. Carolyn Siddall, who runs the post office for Pope, said it will close Friday.
Laura Shrewsbury, who was mailing a gift to her sister in Danville, Ky., said she will have to start using the post office in Carrboro.
“I come here all the time,” she said. “Not only am I sad about the post office closing, I’m sad about Pope’s closing. They have what nobody else has. Sometimes I go all over Chapel Hill and Durham looking for something. There’s a special silver polish that I use. He was the only place that had it.”
Robin W. Hillard, a leasing director for Weingarten Realty, said three potential tenants have been shown the 11,000 square-foot space that will be available when the hardware store closes, but that no final decisions have been made.
Pope’s is offering a 20 percent storewide discount until its doors close for good, sometime after Thursday.