Innerviews: Pile Hardware scion keeps family store nailed down

TOM HINDMAN l Gazette-Mail
Pile Hardware owner Bill Pile joined the longstanding family business for good in 1967, after growing up in the store founded by his grandfather during the Great Depression. At 71, he runs the West Side store with his wife and two sons.
TOM HINDMAN l Gazette-Mail
“When we hire somebody, the main rule is, for at least a year, you can’ t tell anybody we don’t have something, because it might be here somewhere.”
The history of Pile Hardware stretches back to the 1930s.

He’s a pillar of Pile Hardware, the backbone of the iconic West Side business started by his grandfather 83 years ago.

At 71, Bill Pile oversees a flourishing hardware haven crammed with a mind-boggling nuts-and-bolts, A-to-Z inventory. If he doesn’t have it or can’t find a suitable substitute, forget it. You won’t find it anywhere else. Same with the busy repair shop. If they can’t fix it, might as well buy a new one. And where else do you get such patient and extensive advice?

During the Great Depression, his grandfather, Frank Marshall Pile, convinced a bank to loan him $1,500 to open a little hardware store next to the Smokehouse. In 1979, growing pains prompted a move to the familiar present site on the main drag of Washington Street.

He grew up working in the store, started managing some in the mid-1960s and took over full-time following his father’s death in 1982. His wife and two sons help keep the Pile family legacy alive.

His affable, folksy, never-met-a-stranger manner fits perfectly in a business known for personalized service.

In 2012, he collapsed in the store and nearly lost his life to a heart attack. Today, a defibrillator keeps the ticker on track and the popular proprietor in the store he loves. They had to carry him out once. They’d have to drag him kicking and screaming to get him out again.

“I grew up in Dunbar, on 21st Street. If you drive through the streets of Dunbar now, every lot has a building or house. When we were young, every third place was empty. The most fun we had was playing on dirt piles and throwing things. People digging foundations didn’t like us at all because we threw it all back in the hole.

“My dad came to work here in 1932 and passed on in 1982, so all I ever remember is him working here, a lot of hours. When I was in grade school, he would come up here on Sundays and mark merchandise to put on the shelves. I remember marking sandpaper. I could hardly make a number. In those days, you marked everything. Now everything done by computer. A package of sandpaper was 100 sheets. It probably took me the whole time I was there to mark 104 sheets.

“I was born in 1944 and my grandfather died in 1940, but I have a story about him. During the Depression, my grandfather was manager at Charleston Hardware. They cut his salary, so he quit. He went to the Charleston National Bank to borrow the money. We weren’t doing well. We owed money. But they loaned him $1,500 to open our store in the building down the road, where the Smokehouse is.

“The store started getting bigger. I would come in the summer and paint the roofs and other menial tasks. There was the main store and 16 different roofs. Back in the ’30s, they didn’t go get a building permit. If they had a little money ahead, they got some two-by-fours and a couple rolls of roofing and built a 20-by-20 section.

“The only reason I like what I do now is that my daddy didn’t make me work. But if he said, ‘Tomorrow I need you to work,’ it wasn’t like, ‘Gee, Dad, I’ve got this to do at school.’ When he said you were going to work tomorrow, you were going to work.

“In those days is, they expected you to learn everything from osmosis. Now they have training programs. In my day, you started out threading pipe, cutting glass, sweeping the floor, and you eventually started waiting on customers.

“I graduated from Dunbar High in 1962. I never went to college. Andy, my youngest son, went to school for 100 years, I think. He has all kinds of credits, but he never got a degree. Teddy, another son, has a degree from West Virginia Wesleyan and an MBA.

“In a small business, you can easily work 60 to 80 hours a week. Usually kids see their parents doing that and they don’t want to do that. We encouraged them to do anything they wanted. But they both ended up here, and they love it. They’ve made our place a better place.

“I went to work for a major hardware wholesaler in Cleveland. I just wanted to branch out a little. I worked there three or four years, and my dad called one day to say a lady in the office was going to quit and he needed help. He never liked working the office. I don’t either. I come back here to the office under threat of death. I’d rather sell you a hammer or help you fix your faucet. Sitting here doing paperwork, I would be crazy. I admire people who can do that. It’s not my personality.

“When Dad called me to come back, we didn’t talk about money or anything. Him and his brother Jack owned the store jointly. Eventually, we bought out his half. So I gave notice and came here in 1967.

“We opened the fix-it shop for power equipment about 20 some years ago. If someone buys a lawnmower and the next month it won’t start, half the people who come in are mad about it. ‘This darned piece of junk won’t run!’ Not many people want to have a shop, but we’re a service business. We don’t have all the answers, but we try to help people. We special order things.

“We’re an Ace store now. One day, the hardware rep looked around our store and said, ‘How do you cram all this stuff in here?’ He said most hardware stores probably have 20,000 to 25,000 items. He said we probably have 40,000 to 45,000 items.

“Everybody here knows where everything is. When we hire somebody, the main rule is, for at least a year, you can’t tell anybody we don’t have something, because it might be here somewhere.

“We sell lots and lots of canning supplies, and bee supplies. We have things we only sell maybe one of every year or two, but for the guy who needs it, he appreciates it. “The most fun in this business is when somebody walks in with an item and says they have looked all over and can’t find it. You take that item and you go get it. ‘Is this what you want?’ They don’t care how much it is if it solves their problems.

“If you come in and want a certain item I don’t have, I can show you how something else can work.

“The weather can make a 5 or 10 percent difference in your business. I’m a pretty smart guy, but I don’t know any way to control the weather. You benefit when it’s good and don’t benefit when it isn’t good.

“When the weather breaks, we sell a lot of power equipment. We can go from not having anything to do to two or three weeks behind in two or three days. Drought can kill the power equipment business, or a winter that never gets below 20 degrees. You don’t sell a lot of salt or snow shovels.

“We were open after the derecho. It might have been as busy a day as we’ve ever had. My son who runs the shop was very happy. People buy a generator and let it sit for three years. It won’t run. Same with a chainsaw or snowblower. He fixed everything that came in the door.

“That Saturday, we opened at 8 a.m. and all the generators we had were gone by 8:30. There were 10 or 15 people lined up for them at the door.

“One customer came in right at first. He said, ‘I want the biggest, baddest chainsaw you have.’ We have them over $1,000. I said, ‘This is the best I have.’ He said he wanted it. He had about eight trees down, and he didn’t want a toy. We sold more chain saws that year than ever, probably 100 to 150 in the next week. I consider generators and snow blowers as buying insurance. When you get them, you hope you never need either one of them.

“The box stores have millions of items. They are good people and love their children and go to church on Sunday, but they aren’t real service-oriented. People who go to hardware shows may say, ‘Oh, I wish I had Home Depot’s business.’ But if everyone who went out to Corridor G walked in here tomorrow morning, I’d need a building 10 times bigger. We all covet their business, but we couldn’t stand it.

“Most weeks, I work five days a week, half days. I get up at 5. We open at 7:30 and I’m here by 6:30 doing paperwork and special orders and checking inventory. I enjoy the first hour I’m here as much as when we are busy. It’s fun to come in and get your mind set. We aren’t open on Sunday, but if things get terrible and I would have to open Sunday to survive, I would, because my business is important to me. I have put my whole life into it.

“I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m pretty active. I’m extremely active in St. Christopher Episcopal Church, and I’m active on the West Side. They will have some event, and invite the mayor and the police chief and me, and I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing up here with these people? Surely there is someone on the West Side better than me.’

“I am lucky to be here. About four years ago, I ended up at the Cleveland Clinic. I was in a coma. I was standing right up front of the register. I just collapsed. A fellow gave me CPR, and the fire department was here in two or three minutes and shocked me back to life twice.

“I was out of commission about a month. They did bypass surgery. I have a defibrillator. I had no symptoms whatsoever. I just hit the floor. The doctor said I needed a defibrillator because I could be sitting right here having a heart attack as we are talking. I would show no signs.

“Three days a week, I go to cardiac exercise in South Charleston. Is exercise fun? No. But you get so close to the people you exercise with that you hardly even think about the exercise.

“I want to do this as long as my health is good and I can have some effect and not just be a vegetable sitting in the corner.”

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or call 304-342-5027.

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