Swarthmore Hardware Turns 100

After 100 years, four owners, and a worldwide pandemic, Swarthmore Hardware stands on Chester Road with no intention of leaving. In the narrow, packed aisles is Charlie Devaney, who has owned and worked at the store for 53 years. Coming out of Army service at age 21, Devaney began working at Swarthmore Hardware with the deal that he would be offered the right of first refusal to buy it. During the more than five decades since, he has never felt a need for a career change.

“When you’re here you do something different every day,” Devaney said. “It never gets boring. I guess the adage is that if you like what you’re doing, it’s not like working every day.”

While merchandise has changed from American and Japanese to Chinese tools, Devaney says “Tools will never change.” Glass bottles from the early 1900s that used to hold chemicals are on display, but the newer packaging and displays are similar to the hardware a hundred years ago. Swarthmore College continues to use the hardware store, with departments such as art and Public Safety keeping accounts to buy tools. However, while the store has stayed constant, the surrounding town has changed considerably; Devaney attributes this to the higher cost of living and taxes. 

“When I first started here, there were a lot of blue-collar workers who worked for PECO and the water company,” Devaney said. “Today you don’t see that anymore. It’s doctors, lawyers, financial advisors…” 

Swarthmore Hardware is the only local business left from its time as many retailers have shut down, aside from the Paulson & Company rug store. It’s also one of few small independent hardware stores left at 900 square feet, as opposed to the 10,000 square feet of big box stores. This year, for the first time ever, Swarthmore Hardware was named the best hardware store in Delaware County by the Delco Times. Devaney believes this is indicative that customers still look for the service provided by a local store. 

“When you go to Home Depot or Lowe’s, you don’t get service,” Devaney said. “You get a guy that will point you in the right direction to whatever you want to get. But if you come in here with something, we’ll put it on the table and look at it and say ‘okay, you need this, this’ and sometimes we’ll even take it apart and put it together for you. You’re not going to get that anywhere else except a small hardware store.”

Swarthmore Hardware has been doing custom repairs since before Devaney can remember, always on a plywood table in the middle of the store that he estimates to be 40 years old. His favorite repairs are chandeliers because of their complexity, but he originally focused on lawnmowers until the pandemic prevented him from ordering parts. He’s entirely self-taught from decades of experience and YouTube videos. Without offering repairs, Devaney believes Swarthmore Hardware wouldn’t be here today. 

“If you don’t do repairs, you’re not going to be open,” Devaney said. “You have to be able to fix. If you can’t fix anything, you’re just going to depend on selling stuff and it’s not going to work. Won’t work and never has worked. It did for some of the other little stores that were around, but the reason they’re gone was because they didn’t fix anything.”

The store has never advertised but is starting to see customers from nearby towns because of other hardware stores closing. Repairs have remained constant, and Devaney prides himself on being able to give information about what is worth repairing and how he can do it. His son, Steve Devaney, who has been working at Swarthmore Hardware since he was twelve and plans to take over when his father retires, has also learned all the repairing expertise through his 36 years at the store. However, Charlie Devaney has no immediate plans to retire as he approaches his 75th birthday. 

“[I’ll be ready] when it becomes physically impossible,” Devaney said. “But I’m not seeing that in the very near future. You have to just enjoy what you’re doing to stay where you are. Most people look forward to retirement, but I’m kind of happy just coming in here.”

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