Nuts and bolts of the job please store owner

There are few places Susan Harlan would rather be than among the plumbing fixtures, hoses, electrical switches, hammers and garden supply aisles of her store, Vickery Hardware in Smyrna. As a young child, nuts, bolts and pipes were among her playthings as she hung out in the store her father bought in 1965.

Now, as an adult, Harlan is more than adept at making repairs in her own home. She’s keeping a 45-year family tradition alive as Vickery’s owner and one of the few women in the industry to own and operate a small, independent hardware store.

“As a kid, I used to play on top of cement bags,” Harlan said with a laugh. “My two kids then grew up here, too. I’m really into tools and love plumbing.”

Harlan’s family has deep connections to the hardware industry. Her great-uncle spent 50 years in the business. One of her two brothers owns a hardware store in Peachtree City. Their tie to the Smyrna store goes back to 1965, when her father bought what was already a well-established community business

“This store was started in 1950 by a Mr. Vickery, so it’s actually 60 years old," Harlan said. “We kept the name when we took it over. At that time, it was on South Cobb Drive, but when they widened the road in 1974, we moved to Concord Road and have been here ever since.”

Though she’s now continuing a family tradition, Harlan didn’t start out to do so. A graduate of Cobb County’s Campbell High, she went on to study art at Georgia State while still working with her dad in the store. She married, had two children and became a widow in 2003, the same year her father died. That was also the year she stepped into the owner’s role, supported by a cast of seasoned employees.

“We have several people who have been here 10 years or more,” she said. “There is one young man who started working with us when he was 15 and he’s now 26. We have about 16 people working here to keep the place open seven days a week.”

Harlan also found she was one of the few female owners in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

“There are a lot more women now then when I started,” she said. “But there was a long time when I’d go to a hardware meeting and be the only woman there. Now, there are more coming in as store owners and managers.”

Along with the store, Harlan took over a problem her father grappled with for years: competition from the big orange chain headquartered a few miles away.

“When Home Depot opened in the ’80s, things were really tough,” she said. “We used to carry a lot of power tools and big-ticket items, but we don’t anymore. We just can’t compete. But where we do compete, and where I think we do a better job, is service. When you come in my store, we meet you at the door and help you with whatever you want. A lot of times people come in and don’t even know how to do what they want, but we can walk them through it. We even have one gentleman who comes to our store when the clocks change each year just to get one of our guys to go out and change the clock in his car. You don’t get that kind of customer service with a big business.”

Harlan, who lives just four miles from the store, doesn’t see its tradition continuing with either of her children.

"My son is an artist in New York, and my daughter is more mission-minded,” she said. “So don’t think I’ll be passing it on. But I hope I can be around another 20 years or longer before I have to make that decision.”

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