BUSINESS MONDAY: Carr Hardware – The Berkshire Edge

PITTSFIELD — Marshall Raser was in business with his two brothers, running a bustling hardware store in Quincy, Mass., when a third party tipped him off to an opportunity in the Berkshires. The year was 1962 and Carr Hardware, founded by Sam Carr 34 years prior, was up for sale. Marshall drove west to take a look at the business and build a connection with Carr; save for a single trip to retrieve his belongings, he literally never left. “That was my dad’s introduction to Pittsfield,” says Bart Raser, who joined the family business in 1991, and oversees day-to-day operations at the eight Carr Hardware locations throughout the Berkshires and Connecticut. At age 93, Marshall remains equally involved—and he’s never looked back.

Carr Hardware on North Street in Pittsfield, the original link in the chain. Photo courtesy of Carr Hardware

As a locally-owned independent hardware and industrial supplier, Carr Hardware has prioritized its presence as a fixture in the local community. “We have a mission statement that we keep in front of us all the time, and that has not changed in many years,” says Raser who cites integrating and supporting their communities, employing expert staff and providing customers best-in-class products as chief among their aims. “It’s a community business in the end,” he says of core values that remain unchanged in the 94 years since Carr Hardware opened for business.

What has changed is consumer culture, which is why there have always been challenges—chief among them competition. “SEARS was the big challenger, 50 years ago,” Raser recalls, citing the convenience of catalog shopping as the next threat. The advent of big-box stores soon followed, and now online shopping (and the millions of items available to today’s consumer without ever leaving home) remains just a click away.

Carr Hardware Great Barrington
Carr Hardware on Main Street in Great Barrington. Photo courtesy of Carr Hardware

As for what ultimately makes Carr Hardware unique? “We really do eat, drink and sleep service—[and] it is so heavily integrated into our culture that it’s the focus of everything we think, say and do,” says Raser, citing the blessing of valuable employees who are not only knowledgeable but who have also been with the business for a very long time. Carr Hardware employs 100+ individuals, each of whom is committed to the culture at Carr Hardware, “and that’s a differentiator.”

This culture is reinforced at every opportunity, as evidenced by the fact that no two Carr locations are the same. “We’re not cookie cutter at all,” says Raser, whose entrepreneurial store managers run their respective stores as if they were stand-alone businesses. Each location differentiates itself from the next, both in product selection and projected needs of the market, while serving a wide range of homeowners, contractors and commercial customers. Carr offers over 40,000 different products—including paint, tools, hardware; electrical and plumbing supplies; as well as seasonal products for outdoor living and lawn and garden maintenance. Over the years, the business has established relationships with various institutions and government agencies throughout the state of Massachusetts, Connecticut and surrounding areas of New York State and Vermont.

Carr Hardware, Lenox
Bart Raser in front of the newest store in the chain (opened 2020) on the Pittsfield Road in Lenox. Photo courtesy of Carr Hardware

In fact, the elder Raser’s initial leap from Metro Boston to the Berkshires—a whopping six decades ago—was a clear harbinger of his long-term vision for expansion (a trait he clearly passed on to his son). What began with a single store on North Street has expanded over the years to include locations throughout Berkshire County in Great Barrington, North Adams, Lenox, Lee (including Carr’s sister location, Lee Hardware), as well as Avon and Enfield, Conn. Maintaining a visible presence in each of these communities is integral to the Carr Hardware identity. “It’s a huge part of who we are, and it’s mind boggling, really, how much we do,” says Raser of their scope of involvement.

As a fixture in eight respective communities, Carr Hardware regularly partners with community organizations through community events at the store level. An annual bucket sale in Pittsfield supports the Berkshire Humane Society, and regular cash-register round-ups throughout the region raise proceeds to help stock shelves at local food pantries. Carr Hardware has established a reputation, throughout the various Carr communities, as a willing partner in helping nonprofits to raise money. The Carr Family is not overlooking kids, either. In Pittsfield, the business hosts an annual Trunk-or-Treat for local ghosts and goblins; in Lee, the Carr Hardware Children’s Carnival has become a popular part of the annual Founders’ Day Weekend celebration.

Carr Hardware store manager Frank Sowalsky
Great Barrington Store Manager Frank Sowalsky in the paint department. Photo by Marcie Setlow

 

Carr Hardware was named the National Independent Small Business of The Year in 2017; National LED Retailer of the Year in 2016; featured on the CBS show “Undercover Boss”; and voted Best of the Berkshires by Berkshire Eagle readers 23 years in a row.

“We bring this kind of nuts-and-bolts, center of the community kind of culture [to the region],” says Raser, who takes community involvement one step further: all Carr Hardware employees are encouraged to actively participate in do-good organizations, and they are provided the time and money to do so. “Even when it conflicts with work, we encourage the people who work in our stores to pick something they’re passionate about and stay involved,” explains Raser, who has donated his time to countless organizations over the years. He is uniquely positioned, through daily conversations with customers throughout the county, to provide perspective on what community members—and their respective neighborhoods—need. “We’ve probably sat on every board in Berkshire County!” he says with a chuckle (although likely far from joking, considering the combined 91 years he and his father have dedicated to philanthropic involvement throughout the region).

Remaining viable in the volatile economic landscape over the past two years has been a balancing act. As hardware stores were deemed essential, Raser never closed his doors. “We thrived during the pandemic, [although] it was painful for a lot of reasons,” he said, thankful for employees who remained customer-facing throughout, at first dealing with the deluge of individuals looking for PPE and then managing the subsequent onslaught of home-improvement projects. “Contractors [and homeowners] are very, very busy doing these projects so we are very busy,” Raser added of the seasonal shift currently underway.In Great Barrington, the front-of-house is stocked with products and merchandise poised to usher in warm-weather and a return to outdoor living—from gas grills and patio furniture to gardening gloves and seed packets (and everything in between).

Carr Hardware in Great Barrington outfitted for spring and summer. Photo by Marcie Setlow

This family business, though shaped by the past, is firmly rooted in the present, and is always looking ahead. “From a goal perspective, we are not done growing,” says Raser, who prides himself on being acquisitive by nature while also mindful of not growing unmanageably. That said, like his father did more than six decades ago when he first ventured to Pittsfield, “if there’s an opportunity, we always look at it.” He remains in constant conversation with folks in the industry to explore possibilities for expansion that align with Carr Hardware’s current geographic footprint. In day-to-day operations of his business, staffing continues to be a challenge for Raser (not uncommon in today’s post-pandemic employment landscape). While Raser feels “appreciative and fortunate” that Carr Hardware is “doing way better than most” other local businesses when it comes to hiring, he admits it is still “tricky to hire and tricky to grow when there are staffing problems” in the industry.

While Marshall and Bart Raser have been successful business partners for more than three decades, one has to wonder if the tradition of fathers and sons—or parents and children, for that matter—being in business together belongs to a bygone era. “A lot of second- and third-generation kids don’t want to be in the retail hardware business anymore, and I think that will continue to be the case,” says Raser who candidly points to this fact fueling much of Carr Hardware’s growth over the years: “We’ve grown through acquisition because the next generations really didn’t want to participate.” Raser, who has two young kids at home, is hopeful that one of them will want to carry on in the family business.

For the moment, both Rasers remain focused on living and working in the Berkshires while giving back to the community—another shared passion successfully passed from one generation to the next. “We feel like we’re at the pulse of the community in many ways,” says Raser. Both father and son are grateful for the ongoing support of customers over the years. “Folks in the Berkshires understand the value of shopping local, and the importance of independence. We feel their loyalty—and try to earn it every day.”