Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Old hardware store displays artistry in staying competitive

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Since I was a kid who followed my adults into hardware stores, I have had a weakness for such places, even though rivets, fittings, sockets and elbow joints I wisely leave to the hands of experts.

Pittsburgh has remaining a few of such stores you can walk into from a city sidewalk. Throughout the country, these tend to have linoleum floors and smells that have been diluted by products of diversification — kitchen gadgets, office supplies, candles and kids’ stuff.

Few would flash me back to the hardware stores that smelled of leather and oil and had pocked, swayback floors of burnished wood planks a foot wide. That used to be all of them, back when there were a lot of them. Most have vanished because too many people prefer, inexplicably, to wander aisles of stores the size of football fields that smell like stale popcorn.

To survive, the little guy has to offer something extra or fill a niche of demand or diversify.

As diversification goes, Vogt True Value Hardware at 1308 E. Carson St., South Side, may have taken the widest step out of a hardware store’s comfort zone two months ago when it began displaying works by mosaic artist Stevo Sadvary.

Store owner Shawn Vogt and Mr. Sadvary worked together at Cafe Allegro before it closed in 2008 with Mr. Vogt as manager, Mr. Savary as a server. When Mr. Vogt took over the business from his father, Albert, at the start of this year, he asked his friend if he wanted to put some artwork in the window.

“He felt that his window display needed some zip,” Mr. Sadvary said, “and he thought to ask me.”

“I have another friend who does art,” Mr. Vogt said, “but he said, ‘Naah.’ He didn’t think it was a good fit, like, ‘Who’s going to go to a hardware store and buy art?’ But we’re selling Stevo’s stuff.”

In two months, Vogt Hardware has sold two of the artist’s mosaics — a Pittsburgh incline and bridge scene for $400 and a cut-out fish for $60. That’s roughly the range of his prices.

Mr. Sadvary, who sells most of his art from his Squirrel Hill studio, has also created public artwork throughout the city and region, from the North Side to the South Side, from Natrona to McKees Rocks.

Mr. Vogt’s overture to him was more of a friendship thing than a business decision, but every little-guy store needs to attract people. Mosaics are fascinating to look at, so one might wander in, hoping to see more mosaics, and come out with a flexible drain cleaner-outer thingie for $4.95.

On the counter, I noted a display of lip balm and shea butter products. Definitely not the stuff of a hardware store. Mr. Vogt said he is selling that for another friend.

Diversification was only a little bit of his motivation, he said. Mr. Vogt’s is doing pretty well without art or shea butter. He and his dad both rated business at about 7 or 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. They have absorbed some customers of stores that have closed, including one in Hazelwood and three that operated on the South Side when Albert Vogt opened his store in 1984.

“They were all on the other end,” east of 21st St., the elder Mr. Vogt said. “There was hardly anything [else] down here. That was a depressed time for businesses on the South Side because the steel mills were all closing.”

He said Mr. Vogt’s business is “strictly neighborhood,” but his son said some shoppers aren’t South Siders.

Albert Vogt is semi-retired. He spends part of most days in a little raised cubby in the back of the store, near the repair area, where the Vogts and one employee repair lamps, vacuum cleaners, window screens.

Shawn studied chemical engineering in college but never got his degree, he said. “I had worked in the hardware store most of my life. I always liked it. So I decided I’d keep the legacy going.”

Diana Nelson Jones: Djones@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1626.

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