Mary and Sam Alper (seated), founders of Alper's, with their sons Morris and David. David was the second generation owner and father of the current owners. Morris was an accountant who also helped with the family business.
At a time when retail stores on Main Street in Port Washington and all over the country are closing, Alper's Hardware at 81 Main Street continues to thrive after four generations. The business was founded in 1911 by Sam and Mary Alper, grandparents of Doris Alper Novick and Sheryl Alper Cohen, who currently own and run the store with their husbands Mark Novick and Lewis Cohen. Sam's son David, father of Sheryl and Doris, went into the business when he came home from World War II, and ran it until he died. His wife, Fay, worked at Alper's until she was in her 80s, handling the books, the paperwork and so forth. "My parents were true partners," said Doris. Direct descendants who currently work in the store include Adam and Brian, son and son-in-law respectively of Doris and Lew; and Matthew, Sheryl's son. Over the years, siblings, spouses and other children have been involved with the business full or part time.
The Port News asked, "What's your 'secret'?" The bottom line answer is customer service. Mark said, "I like to treat people as I would want to be treated. He added, "We have very loyal customers. If someone is buying a house the seller will advise them, 'Go to Alper's.'" Doris said, "It is important to treat people - clients and employees - nicely." She added that, in addition to family members who work in the store, Alper's has many long-term loyal employees. (One of them - Ronnie - has been with the business for over 40 years.) Doris said, "These are people who our customers know and trust." Adam, Doris's son and great-grandson of the founder, remarked that another reason for customer loyalty is that the family and the employees are very involved in the community. He said, "They are involved with the police, fire, water, and with churches and synagogues." Doris said that her grandfather was one of several orthodox Jewish businessmen in town who started Temple Beth Israel. When this reporter commented that the temple is now conservative, she responded that her mother was influential in the shift from Orthodox because "she wanted to sit with my father." (Doris taught pre-K for 25 years at Temple Beth Israel, and she and Mark are still active there.) In that context, Mark commented, "Doris and Cheryl are carrying on the tradition of strong women."
Another reason for Alper's success and longevity, as with virtually any business, is the willingness to change. That, too, began early on. Alper's actually started as a jewelry store on Main Street, very near to the present store. According to Doris and Sheryl, during World War I their grandfather was able to get certain scarce items like motor oil. He began carrying these and other automotive items, then added other products. Doris said, "It morphed, and just kept on morphing." In the '50s, to meet the pent-up demand created during World War II, Alper's carried major appliances. That part of the business was phased out; now they offer a full line of household goods and small appliances. Doris observed, "You only survive by changing. Change is part of the legacy. That's how they [our forebears] taught us to think." Adam added, "We are not afraid to venture off into a new category." A recent development at Alper's is the increase in its business with contractors. Mark attributed the origin of this growth primarily to the introduction of Benjamin Moore paint. After passing a rigorous evaluation process, the manufacturer gave them the exclusive right to sell that brand in this zip code. Mark said, "Seven years ago we serviced almost no contractors; now it is a significant part of our business." The store recently changed its hours, opening at 7 a.m. to serve the contractors, as well as commuters who want to shop on their way to work.
The people at Alper's know their merchandise and are always ready, willing and able to help the customer find what he or she is looking for, and even to advise the weekend do-it-yourselfer. You will get the same level of service whether you are looking for a pricey grill or lawnmower, or just a special light bulb or screw. For a store this size, Alper's is amazingly well-stocked, with an estimated 40,000 items on hand. Adam said, "If we don't have it, we will do our best to get it."
Doris and Sheryl both have fond memories of being in the store from the time they were children. Sheryl recounted the story of a customer complaining to her father that there was a little girl playing with the "screws and stuff." Her father replied, "That's my daughter." Sheryl commented, "We were kid-friendly then and that is still true. Kids are welcome here." When they were a little older, the Alper girls helped out in the store. One of their jobs was gift wrapping during the holiday season. The sisters related that when customers were skeptical about their wrapping ability, their father (Dave Alper) would reply, "That's okay. They graduated from the Vienna School of Wrapping."
The husbands and offspring of the Alper sisters express great pride in being part of the family legacy. Although he was an accomplished and published research immunologist, Lew said, "I am proud to be part of the family tradition." Mark added, "I always felt that I was keeper of the keys." Adam, who worked in advertising prior to coming into the business full time, echoed these sentiments, adding "It's fun." Brian commented "There are 100 years of people on top of us."
Sheryl, who previously worked as a manager at Bloomingdale's, summed up the pride that the Alper family has in their business, saying, "We are walking in their footsteps. I feel my father watching and approving." She added, "Our heart is in the store. The family history gets us through the tough times."
Alper's offers a full range of hardware, housewares, and outdoor items. They also offer services such as knife and scissor sharpening, screen and storm repair, lamp repair, and lawnmower servicing and sharpening. They are a member (one of the first members, according to Sheryl) of the True Value buying group, which keeps prices down. The Alpers invite you to come and see the new arrangement of their store. Hours are Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Their website is www.alpershardware.com and the telephone is 866-767-0508.