Marjie Foster (left) and Revelea Lemon own hardware stores next door to each other on Elk Street in Gassaway. Big-box stores like Lowe's and Walmart are more than 40 miles away, so offering products and customer service that locals want is important, Foster said.
GASSAWAY, W.Va. -- Marjie Foster and Revelea Lemon both own successful hardware stores on the same block in Gassaway, but when they first started in the business, male customers did not welcome them with open toolboxes.
"When I started in 1994, men said, 'Women can't do this, they can't run a hardware store.' I had to pay my dues in the beginning [and prove] that I do know how to do this," Foster, 53, said, in the basement of her Gassaway Tru Value Hardware store last week. "Men didn't take women seriously."
Lemon -- who owns the Harts Pro Hardware store next door to Foster's (their stores even share a wall) -- said she, too, experienced gender discrimination when she and her late husband, Herbert Hart, took over the company in 1976.
"When we first started, we had people who wouldn't want me to look up a part so they'd ask Herb and he'd turn to me and ask me to look it up," Lemon, 69, said, chuckling at the memory. "It has changed but there are still a few men who want the man [employee] to answer their questions."
Over the years, Foster and Lemon proved that they can answer questions about repairing weed trimmers and pointing out which parts will fix a lawnmower -- all while owning businesses that are located next to each other on Elk Street.
The women's dedication to their small business is a growing national trend.
The number of businesses owned by women increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011 to 8.1 million, according to a report
published by American Express OPEN.
Women who own businesses have done better overall than their male counterparts in the past 14 years, according to the report. The number of businesses owned by men grew by only 25 percent between 1997 and 2011 -- half the rate of women's firms.
Foster said when she took over her parents' store -- which they bought in 1983 -- after her dad died in 1994, it wasn't a question between her and her husband about who would run the business.
"It wasn't a question because I'm more of a people person and I've worked here longer. To work a retail hardware store, you have to like people when you deal with them all the time," Foster said. "Owning a small business is a way of life. It's not a 9-to-5 job."
In front of the two stores, wheelbarrows and stacked shovels blend together as they line the sidewalk. But it is when a customer walks into either store that they notice their differences.
A riding lawn mower, a grill and vacuums sit on the original hardware floors at the entrance of Tru Value. Next door, a wall of guns and Case Select knives are showcased at Harts Pro.
Lemon and Foster offer a lot of the same products but carry different brands. Tru Value and Harts Pro sell paint, outdoor power equipment, sporting goods, electrical merchandise and garden tools.
For Foster, staying successful in a county that has eight hardware stores -- including Lemon's next door -- relied on finding her own niche, she said.
"I've tried to figure out the store's identity. That's always been the focus," Foster said. "I know in this area they've accepted me running the hardware store as a woman because I have this aptitude at fixing things."
Although she has never been a plumber, Foster said her store's focus is plumbing. She enjoys solving customers' puzzles and sorting out their problems, she said.
When a local visited her hardware store to ask how they could plumb rainwater to a garden, Foster pointed them to the proper parts to help make the idea a reality.
"It has always been about customer service. As soon as a customer comes in the door, we greet them and we try hard to make their experience enjoyable. People come in here frustrated and we try to turn that around."
Lemon said the regulars are the reason she is able to show up to work at 6:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
When Lemon and Hart took over what was then Western Auto in 1976, the company sold just about everything. From Tonka Toys and furniture to automobile parts and appliances. Lemon remembers buying 100 bicycles at a time. "Now here's all we have," she said, pointing to a sparse rack of six bicycle tires and one helmet.
The products they sell have changed but the customers keep coming back.
"Customers say they know they can get it cheaper somewhere else but they come here because they want us to be here," Lemon said. "It's about going that extra mile."
When the small Braxton County town lost its electricity, both Lemon and Foster kept their stores open because "people needed batteries, people needed us," Foster said.
Having worked next to each other for more than 30 years (Foster worked for her parents part-time in her 20s), Lemon and Foster said they are friends and neighbors. Foster gives Lemon's great-granddaughter piano lessons in her store's basement. Foster said she doesn't consider Lemon's store competition -- they each run their business differently and help each other out to "keep customers shopping in Gassaway," Foster said.
"If someone asks for something we don't have, we tell them to go next door. It'd be rough if we were side by side and didn't get along," Lemon said.
Both women don't plan on closing their doors anytime soon. Lemon, who enjoys gardening, said getting up early every day is what keeps her young.
"You've got to have a purpose in life. As long as I've got good health, I'm going to get up and go to work every day," Lemon said.
Reach Megan Workman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5113.