George Washington was still president when Foster Farrar Co. opened in 1796, just prior to John Adams taking office as the nation’s second president. The business started out selling blacksmith supplies near its current location in Northampton, Massachusetts. Today, it is one of the oldest hardware stores in the country.
Having thrived for more than two centuries since its beginning, Foster Farrar has survived wars, economic turmoil and other national crises.
Like the nation, the business now looks very different from how it started. In fact, nothing has really stayed the same for the store—not even the name or location.
In addition to at least 25 ownership transitions over two centuries, the store’s product mix has also changed significantly based on community needs. The anvils and other blacksmithing tools are long gone, and so are the firearms and dynamite.
Its legacy of adapting to fit the needs of the community has contributed to the business’s success. A solid reputation, deep roots and a constant presence have kept business steady, co-owner Paul Czapienski says.
“It has a good name. It’s always been here,” Paul says.
Northampton is a suburban area in western Massachusetts, and Foster Farrar provides the local DIYers and contractors with a comprehensive assortment of core hardware categories, paint and lawn and garden items. Its services include lamp, window and screen repairs. One service the store offers that harkens back to its historical roots is its locksmith and safe shop, which has proven to be a profitable niche since the owners added it about 20 years ago.
Paul, who co-owns the business with Karel Rescia, has tried to learn and keep track of Foster Farrar’s history since buying into the business in 1996, but the store’s list of prior owners reads like a biblical genealogy.
“It kind of rolled from the blacksmith supply store started by Samuel Clarke to the next person to the next person to the next,” he says.
The store has been named Foster Farrar Co. for a little more than 100 years. In 1914, a businessman named Frederick Farrar bought into a partnership with the Foster brothers. Six owners later, the name is still Foster Farrar Co., although no relatives of those early 20th century owners still work in the business.
What Paul knows about the company’s history he has gleaned from newspaper archives, stories from customers and prior store owners and artifacts left from the store’s past. In fact, they still have an old apron and yardsticks featuring the store’s original phone number, 11.
Paul has co-owned the business for 25 years this year, but his connection to Foster Farrar Co. extends back to his childhood. He grew up about 15 miles away from the store, and he used to visit it with his father who shopped there occasionally.
Paul has spent most of his career working in the home improvement sector, first at a local lumberyard and later at a different hardware store nearby.
“I see a hardware store as a kind of giant toy store for adults, with all the tools and other supplies,” he says. “I was drawn to that type of business.”
He worked at other businesses in the area until he decided he wanted to be his own boss. At his previous hardware store job, he felt like he was putting in long hours like a business owner.
“I decided if I was going to work that hard, I might as well do it for myself,” Paul says.
He investigated the possibility of opening a new store, and then connected with Karel’s father, Richard Rescia, who was nearly ready to retire. Paul struck a deal to buy out Richard’s business partner in 1996—a full 200 years after the company’s founding. When Richard officially retired in 2000, Karel took his place in the partnership with Paul, creating the current arrangement, with Karel and Paul working together.
With Karel’s family connection to the company, her history extends back even further than Paul’s. She was a toddler when her father bought an ownership stake in the store in 1961, and she has spent at least 50 years working for the business.
When Karel’s father owned the store, it had been in downtown Northampton for many years. In 1990, he decided to move the operation less than a mile away to a property with a parking lot, showing some foresight.
The business grew and the parking lot made a significant difference for store customers, since finding downtown parking had been a hassle that would have especially deterred professional customers, Paul says. About half of the store’s customers are contractors and the other half are local homeowners and other DIYers.
Although Karel never planned to take over the business, she also never made plans to leave.
“I had no idea this was going to be my life,” Karel says. “It’s a great business. I enjoy working with people, and it just seemed like the right fit for me.”
Paul and Karel operate the store together, dividing responsibilities that suit their interests and skills. Karel enjoys working on the salesfloor and overseeing the merchandising, while Paul works mostly in the back office and does some of the store’s locksmith duties. They collaborate on tasks such as product ordering.
They hope to keep growing and adapting their single store and eventually pass it on to other owners who will keep the history alive.
“We try to adjust the business as we see fit, and we try to keep a staff of people who are knowledgeable and helpful,” Paul says. “Everybody who works here wants to be here and wants to help customers. When a customer has a problem and you can help them through it, it just makes you feel good.”