Mattapan was mostly white and Jewish when Norfolk Hardware was established there in 1934. A few decades later, the city’s population started to drop, and many Mattapan residents and businesses moved to the suburbs. But Norfolk Hardware stayed.
Today, 73 percent of Mattapan’s residents are of African descent — the largest concentration in the city — with many immigrants from Haiti and other Caribbean countries. Through that demographic change, Norfolk Hardware has endured as a fixture in Mattapan, offering residents a convenient place to fulfill their home improvement needs. The store celebrates 85 years in business this weekend.
“We were the neighborhood hardware store,” declared Stewart Rosen, the third-generation owner of Norfolk Hardware, when asked about his family’s decision to keep their business there while others fled. The original Norfolk Hardware was established by his grandfather Benjamin, a plumber by trade, and grandmother Lena, at the corner of Norfolk and Edson streets.
“Are we going to be forced out because we’re afraid of what the neighborhood had become?” he continued. “No. You don’t leave because you’re afraid. You leave because you think there’s a better place to be. And there wasn’t.”
Rosen, 66, said in addition to his family’s commitment, part of the store’s staying power lies in an old-fashioned way of doing business: with face-to-face contact and familiarity.
“It’s a neighborhood store. It’s the person-to-person. It’s knowing people,” he said. That personal customer service was evident on a recent visit to the former supermarket turned home improvement store, now located on the corner of Morton and Woodmere Streets.
When Robert Lawrence comes into the store, the assistant manager daps him up with a warm greeting by name. Lawrence is one of many customers who said they’ve been shopping at Norfolk Hardware since it was smaller and less pristine. While browsing the neat and newly-renovated aisles for spray paint, the Dorchester resident explained patronizing the establishment is an intentional act that keeps money in his community and saves him time.
“I come back here because it’s pretty much in the neighborhood, and you need to support the neighborhood,” said Lawrence, 55, who is African American. “And, it’s more convenient than going all the way to Home Depot in Quincy or South Bay.”
Naa Oyo Kwate, a professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University, researches how urban environments reflect racial inequalities. In a phone interview, she pointed to the large-scale exodus of white residents starting in the middle of the last century from urban centers to the suburbs.
“Retail went along with them,” she said, adding that since then, the suburbs have remained centers for business activity “that many urban residents can’t easily access.”
Kwate led a 2012 study that looked at retail redlining and defined it as “the inequitable distribution of retail resources across racially distinct areas.” The research analyzed the access of New York City’s predominately black neighborhoods to certain retail stores and concluded that those areas did seem to face retail redlining. Stores like Norfolk Hardware, Kwate said, tend to fill such retail access gaps.
“Many times, it’s the small, independent retailers that set up shop and that remain committed to serving the immediate customers or neighbors in black neighborhoods,” she said.
One explanation Kwate offers for the phenomenon is that many retailers tend to stereotype and devalue minority communities. Her theory jibes with some of the comments Rosen said he has received about his store’s location.
“They say, ‘You work in Dorchester? You work in Mattapan? Aren’t you afraid?’ or, ‘Aren’t you concerned?’ Because they pay attention to the stupid crap that you hear on the news versus the reality in the streets,” Rosen said. “We have a wonderful clientele. We have a wonderful business. Why would I want to be anywhere else?”
Rosen’s son Benjamin, who is poised to assume the company’s helm, told WGBH News that though the store is changing — he’s looking to add an e-shopping capacity within the next few years — Norfolk Hardware will keep its family and neighborhood legacy.
“I think it’s worked out for our business, it’s worked out for the community, it’s worked out for our employees. I think it’s truly a win-win-win for everybody, and I’m glad to be part of that,” said Benjamin Rosen, 37.
Asked why he’s committed to staying in Mattapan, the younger Rosen said that it’s part of his DNA.
“Everything I know started there at 981 Morton Street for me,” he explained. “But, for my family and for four generations, that’s ground-zero. … It’s just so core [to] who we are and our business that, quite frankly, even if we were losing money there, I would still keep the place open. It’s really important to us. Fortunately, we’re not losing money.”