FOOD- THE DISH- Old reliable: Hardware Store bids <i>adieu</i>
In 1976, while former Hardware Store Restaurant owner Stan Epstein was up on a ladder screwing in a light-bulb outside his newly opened restaurant on the City's new pedestrian mall, a passerby offered a prediction.
"This chap walks by and says, 'I'll give you six months.' It was desolate on the Downtown Mall back then," says Epstein.
Over 30 years later, Epstein obviously delights in telling that story. While the Hardware Store hadn't made many cuisine headlines in recent years– what with all the competition on the Mall– it has enjoyed a run the competition can only dream of.
On December 30, as everyone probably knows by now, the Hardware Store served its last burger and packed up its pickle bar. Over the last few years, Esptein says, he and his wife, Marilyn, had received a number of offers on the property, a 20,157 square-foot, three-story building that cost them $135,000 in 1975, and which was accessed last year at $1.3 million. With eager developers knocking on the door, and the couple admitedly "getting along in years," the Epsteins decided it was time to "enjoy life a little."
Indeed, now that the Octagon Partners have bought the Hardware Store building for an amount that reliable source say is around $3 million, the Epsteins may be able to delight as much in their retirement as they did in their role as Mall pioneers.
In particular, Epstein says he enjoyed preserving the legacy of the old Charlottesville Hardware Company. As all the decorative objets attested, the building was originally a hardware store.
"The old Hardware store was an important piece of Charlottesville history and life," says Epstein. "It was a real center of activity, a meeting place, and we tried to preserve that.
"You could walk in the front door and walk out the back," he says of his restaurant, "just come and go as you please. That was the spirit of the old Hardware Company."
Epstein also relished his role as an "incubator" of new businesses on the Mall.
"We incorporated about 40 or 50 different shops in the building over the years," he says. "If we thought the business was a good idea, we invited them in and charged them a reasonable monthly rent. Quite a few businesses that started here went on to be successful elsewhere on the Mall."
For Epstein, the history of his restaurant is also legacy of firsts: first to put fresh money into the new pedestrian Mall, first to help turn the tide and make the Mall successful, first outdoor dining, and first to sponsor various festivals, such as the Cops and Robbers Festival, during which the FBI's 10 most wanted posters, a confiscated moonshine still adorned in the front window, waiters dressed as Keystone Cops, and menus arrived riddled with bullet holes.
"It wasn't just a restaurant for us, but a contribution to the community," says Epstein. "We did it for fun, for public service... and to make a nice profit."
Given the chance, it's clear that Epstein could spend hours talking about his memories. For instance, there was the time one of his cooks stepped out for a break, only to see Muhammad Ali, who used to own a nearby farm, walking up the stairs from a shop in the basement.
"He walked up and gave her a big hug as she stood there smiling," says Epstein, who recalls the heavyweight champ before Parkinson's disease ravaged his body.
"Back in the kitchen, I told her boyfriend, 'Hey, some guy just came up and hugged your girl. Aren't you going to do anything about it?' Well, you should have seen the look on his face when he poked his head out of the kitchen and saw who it was.
"After 30 years, I can't think of one bad incident," says Epstein. "It's been hard because you can't please everybody... someone's always going to like this or not like that. But it has been great. Our hunch about the Downtown Mall 30 years ago turned out to be correct."
Dubbed "Old Reliable" by locals in the early 20th century, the original Charlottesville Hardware Store Company, built in 1895, had everything– from hammers and seed to the City's first telephone service and auto supplies.
ARCHIVAL PHOTO BY RUFUS W. HOLSINGER
When Stan and Marilyn Epstein open the Hardware Store Restaurant in 1976, some critics thought they wouldn't last six months. Thirty-years later, they're hunch about the Downtown Mall turned out to be right.