In the photo, Fred Adler is a plump man in a suit. His hair is thick and dark. One arm rests on a stack of folded denim. He has the cool smile of a self-made man. All around him, signs announce prices and sales. This was Adler’s Army and Navy Store, the company he founded in 1919. Little did Fred know, as he posed for that photo, that his business would still be standing 100 years later.
Times have changed – as has the name – yet Adler’s Design Center & Hardware occupies that same building on Wickenden Street. Long ago, the store stopped stocking clothes and started selling tools and building materials. Later, they specialized in high-quality paint. But as the store celebrates its centennial birthday, Adler’s is still a family business, run by Fred’s grandchildren, Harry and Marc. It’s a touchstone of East Side life.
Harry was only five years old when his grandfather died, but he remembers Fred’s house in Cranston, which stood only a few blocks from his childhood home. “I remember him being a really jovial guy,” he says. “He was always happy and smiling,” adds Marc. “He loved life.” On slow days, Fred would sit in a chair outside the store and wave to passersby. Throughout the 1930s, he would let strangers sweep his sidewalk for a nickel. Harry still marvels that the store survived the Great Depression. “I saw a picture from 1932,” he says, “and it looks extremely well inventoried. It blows my mind.”
To this day, Harry and Marc have no idea why their grandfather started an army-navy store. Yes, World War I had just ended, leaving mountains of military garments. Yes, workers needed uniforms for their factory jobs across the river. Yes, Fred was a trained engraver, and he had a good relationship with Jewelry District laborers. But what gave him the idea? His own father had been a roofer. What experience did Fred ever have with surplus clothes?
That story is lost to time. Whatever the reason, Fred opened up his shop. And his legacy resonates to this day.
Such longevity begs the question: How does a small, family-owned hardware store survive a whole century? In the era of Ace Hardware and Home Depot, what are the odds that Adler’s could compete, especially from a quiet street on the East Side? What has sustained this one location, which Harry jokingly describes as “a one-store chain”? There are many reason it’s survived, of course. The Adler family has put in decades of hard work, their customer service is renowned, and the store has evolved, keeping up with trends. Yet, the family has also benefited from good timing. In 1960, Fred handed the store to his two sons, Irving and Carl. The brothers changed the entire business model – from surplus to hardware – even though a hardware store already existed across the street.
“I remember asking my dad about it,” says Harry. “The answer was, the other hardware store looked busier than we were, and that was appealing to him. He always said we stayed in business because we opened an hour earlier than they did.”
Harry started helping out at Adler’s when he was 10 years old. He was close with his father, but he didn’t plan to stick around; Harry had other plans. It was 1977, and he’d just graduated from Roger Williams University with a degree in business management. He wanted to cast a wide net. “I liked the work,” he said, “but it was a clerk’s job.” His father had never discussed a promotion, so why not look elsewhere? Yet, Harry needed to save money. He decided to work at the store that summer and hammer out a new resumé. A year passed. And then, in 1978, his father suffered a stroke.
For six months, Harry took over the store while Irving recovered. He worried about his father, but he also embraced the new responsibilities. He decided to stay, and to buy out his father’s half of the company. Irving would show signs of stroke for the rest of his life, including slurred speech, but he eventually came back to Adler’s and continued to work with his son for 23 more years.
“That’s one of the coolest things about a family business,” says Harry. “In another company, you might get a thank you and a gold watch and be sent on your way. But my father had the chance to keep going. And I think that was important for people to see.”
The business trundled along until 1986, when Harry received an unexpected call: His cousin Marc wanted to return to Providence and help out with the store.
This was the last thing anyone expected. Marc had left Rhode Island as a teenager to study education at Boston University. He wanted to teach high school history, but when jobs proved scarce, he earned an MBA from Boston College. He moved around following jobs, and became a controller for a paper company in Chicago. It was a high-level position, and he led a team of 30 workers. But after four years in the Windy City, he yearned to work for himself. He’d recently become a father, and he pondered coming back to Providence.
“I thought it would be nice to have my own business,” says Marc. Harry and Marc have always been close. They grew up within walking distance of each other’s houses, and Harry visited Marc in college. Their personalities are very different, but they complement each other well; Harry is a chatty extrovert, while Marc is understated. Harry handles the paint store and customer interactions; Marc handles hardware, accounting, and logistics. In the ‘90s, this relationship enabled them to open the “design center,” where customers could buy paint, consult with a designer, and even arrange major home improvements, such as window treatments. “We became very systematized, very computerized,” says Harry. “I can’t imagine we would have made it without Marc.”
NICE GUYS FINISH FIRST
The first thing you notice about Harry and Marc is how friendly they are. They’re both gentle, wear glasses, and speak in serene voices. Their heights and builds are different, but the family resemblance is clear. Both men move about the store with patient ease – tracking down items, filing keys, switching on the paint-mixing machine – activities they have done thousands of times before. All day, the store is full of chatter; Harry asks customers about projects, families, children, health matters, and recent vacations. If Harry and Marc did a cameo on Sesame Street, they’d fit right in.
But this friendliness is also part of their philosophy. Harry mentions the traditional salesman’s mantra, “ABC,” or “Always Be Closing.” He says that this aggressive attitude isn’t their style at all. He remembers a day, decades ago, when a customer asked for an item that wasn’t in stock. Harry shrugged and let the customer leave. Then his father approached him.
“Never send them away without telling them where they can get what they’re looking for,” Irving said. “And if they don’t know where that store is, draw them a map. And if you don’t know if another store has a thing in stock, call them.”
Harry took this advice to heart, and it’s become the basis of their hundred-year success. “We always try to find the best solution to the question being asked,” he says. “I’m not going to sell something just to sell something.”
To first-time customers, Adler’s is like no other hardware store. The walls and shelves are packed with mementos, from handwritten trivia to a cardboard cutout of Bob Ross. One manager, Cristine DeMarco, has constructed a “shrine” in the middle of the paint store, complete with stickers, postcards, Polaroids, figurines, and even cremated remains stored in bottles. Adler’s employs 15 to 20 people at any given time, and many of them are young and fashionable; they look right at home on hipster-friendly Wickenden Street.
Meanwhile, the Adlers contribute to the community where they can. They have supplied discounted paint to the Avenue Project, a nonprofit arts organization that has created dozens of public murals. When the historic Wedding Cake House began its restoration, Adler’s donated all the external primers and paints. They’ve even helped the local Animal Rescue League.
The Adlers prefer not to talk about the future. Harry is 64, Marc is 68, and they want to keep going as long as they can. When they plan to retire, and what will become of their legendary store, is anybody’s guess. For now, it’s enough to celebrate the three generations that kept Adler’s going – longer than living memory. Harry is a baseball fan, and he brings up the famous manager Leo Durocher. “He had that quote, ‘Nice guys finish last,’” says Harry. “But I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s more fun to work our way. I think nice guys finish first.”
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