WEST ORANGE, NJ — The year 1923 was a big year for innovation — Garrett Morgan received a patent for the traffic light, cathode ray tubes for television were invented by Vladimir Kosma Zworykin and Clarence Birdseye established the modern frozen food industry.
And on Main Street in West Orange, Schneider Hardware made its first sale. A century later, the store is still open and thriving, celebrating its centennial this year. Run by third-generation owners Roger and Gerald Schneider, the store smells faintly of wood and is packed to the gills with tools, plumbing supplies, winter weather necessities and anything else that a customer might want to add to their garage collection. Started by Isadore Schneider, the store has managed to outlast the Great Depression, several wars, big box stores, chain stores and the internet to remain a mainstay in downtown West Orange. It’s the oldest continuously operated business in Essex County.
“Service is not enough,” Roger Schneider said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Jan. 6. “You need to know the person’s needs and have the solutions. We have uncommon items, and we’re close and convenient. We often know your name.”
Isadore Schneider, Roger’s grandfather, worked at a knife-sharpening business in Newark before buying the store in 1923. He had a third-grade education and only one eye as a result of an injury. He spoke only Yiddish, and, according to Roger Schneider, there were five other hardware stores in the area that were doing good business.
“He did plumbing and carpentry work for customers for free, which would be a contractor today,” he said. “He worked six days a week and a half day on Sunday, and he built a following from that.”
Lee Schneider, Roger and Gerald’s father, started working at his father’s store as a teenager in the 1930s and returned after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He didn’t take very many vacations either, but Gerald Schneider said Lee Schneider never pressured his sons to take over the store. Both began their own careers: Gerald as a banker in Connecticut and Roger working for Magnetech Industrial Services selling electrical supplies.
“He never pushed it on us, so I tried other things,” Gerald Schneider said in an interview with the Chronicle on Jan. 6. “Like I think most people do, you want to get away from where you grew up. I didn’t want to be in New Jersey, so I was in New England for a long time. I figured it’s better to work for yourself than it is to work for somebody else, and it worked out. I’m glad I came back.”
He returned to West Orange in 1983; Roger Schneider went back to the store seven years later, in 1990. They worked with their father until he retired in 1997. Lee Schneider died in 2002.
The main reason Schneider Hardware has managed to stay open and active for 100 continuous years, according to Roger Schneider, is the number of unique items it carries, including plumbing and lock ware for older homes, of which there are many in the area.
“You have unique plumbing and with that unique plumbing problems that can be solved at a big box store, but a lot of times it will require ripping things out, which will change the character of the house,” he said. “Sometimes you have to know exactly what thing you’re looking for or even have a sample of it.”
Being a small business does have its advantages. The Schneiders have the ability to repair lawn mowers and snow blowers, in addition to pretty much any tool with a blade: knives, scissors and saws are just a few. Bigger stores can do it, but it will probably be more expensive and take longer.
“They have to send it out, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Roger Schneider said. “But it takes a week. Here, it’s a day or two and Gerald does it right there.”
The other big advantage Schneider Hardware has, at least in its owners’ eyes, is its independence. They’re not beholden to anyone other than themselves; they don’t have to choose from a finite list of items to carry. They’re able to get to know their customers, and then their customers come back.
“When people come in with common problems, we want to help them with the least expensive, quickest and easiest way to solve it,” Roger Schneider said. “That’s the key to success. At a big store, if you ask for help, you might very well get it. But you also might not, or you end up with something too expensive, or something you don’t know how to use. We carry a lot of unique things, but it’s the service that’s important.”
It’s important to the town, too. Mayor Susan McCartney, who has worked with the Schneiders through the West Orange Chamber of Commerce, said walking into the store is like walking into a museum.
“They’ve been so active in the community, and it sets an example,” McCartney said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Jan. 7. “They’ve established themselves as a reliable place to go. There’s always a steady stream of foot traffic there. That’s what we strive for in the Main Street corridor, and they’ve built up that base.”
Roger and Gerald Schneider have both been active volunteers with the WOCC, the Lions Club, the Rotary Club and other organizations in town, which have been important to both of them personally and to the business. West Orange is as important to them as they are to West Orange.
“We’re so grateful to have served the West Orange community,” Roger Schneider said. “It’s a town like no other. Very few towns have what we have here. We caught the volunteer bug, but it’s what you can give back that gives the greatest satisfaction.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic and Courtesy of Roger Schneider