Cliff Straus has been working at his family’s hardware store since he was 4 years old.
Straus Paint & Hardware Co. opened at 28-09 Steinway St. in Astoria in 1930. Though Straus’ great-grandfather opened the shop, he didn’t stay for long.
“The paint fumes got to him, so he gave it to his son,” Straus said.
Charles and Evelyn Straus, Cliff’s grandparents, ran the store for many years, and the younger Straus has stuck around to witness many changes. He began working at Straus Paint & Hardware Co. in the 1960s and officially took over for his father, Gary, a few years ago.
“Back then, you used to have to mix lead and turpentine to actually make the paint,” he said.
The store is open seven days a week and Straus stocks up on a large variety of tools and parts. Shoppers can find everything from paint to light bulbs and radiator valves. The hardware store has attracted a good number of regulars, including neighboring building supers, due to its longevity.
Though there are other hardware stores in the neighborhood and a Home Depot on 25th Avenue, the building was purchased by Charles Straus in the ’40s, which allows the family to stay in business. His parents lived in an apartment unit upstairs for many years, he added.
“We would’ve been long gone [if we didn’t own the building],” Straus said. “This business wouldn’t survive. It just doesn’t make that kind of money. It would be some sort of restaurant or something.”
The key to his success also lies in the variety of items that customers can purchase at the hardware store. Carrying an assortment of supplies allows him to compete with larger hardware stores, Straus said.
“Plumbing, electrical, cleaning, general hardware, sundries, paint, anything that goes on in an apartment we try to cover,” he said.
Straus added that many of the surrounding apartment buildings in the area were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s, which require constant maintenance.
“The buildings around here that were built in the ’30s for the factory workers, a lot of them were built on the cheap,” he said. “That keeps us in business.”
Though many local businesses have worked on creating a strong presence online, Straus said that this is not required for a hardware store.
“People come mostly for what they need,” he said. “This isn’t a window shopping kind of thing. If you need something, something’s going wrong — a leaky faucet, squeaky door, rattling window. I just don’t think that [an online presence] is necessary.”
He has had to shift his purchasing habits. Straus receives inventory shipments almost every day, mostly from local suppliers. But now, he orders most of his items online instead of purchasing them from salesmen.
The salesmen were “guys in overcoats and hats, smoking cigars and carrying two books full of samples,” he said. “You don’t see those guys anymore.”
Though purchasing inventory can get expensive, Straus said he is lucky because most of the items are non-perishable. He also has to deal with inspections from several city agencies such as the Department of Buildings, the Fire Department and Department of Sanitation.
“New York City is very efficient at collecting fines,” he said. “Whether it’s for an aerosol can, storage of flammable liquids, you have to comply to everything. Mostly it’s for safety and we’re all for that. It’s nice that you’re not allowed to smoke in here anymore.”
A steady stream of customers walked through the doors of Straus Paint & Hardware Co. on a Friday afternoon. Some people needed to have their keys copied, while others looked for specific parts like dremel blades.
Straus said that one of his favorite aspects of running a business in Queens is the variety of languages he hears customers speaking. An Italian woman who asked to have her keys copied reminisced about how long she’s been a customer.
“Don’t ask me how long I’ve been here,” Straus said jokingly.
Straus is the only member of his family who still lives in Queens and said he has not “given much thought” to what his plans are for the future of the store.
“I hope to have the basement cleaned up, I’m shooting for the end of this year,” he said. “We have dust down there from the Truman administration.”
He does acknowledge that he’ll be the last Straus working at Straus Paint & Hardware Co.
“I think once we’re gone, nobody’s opening new hardware stores,” he said. “That’s true for many businesses.”
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of an open-ended series in The Queens Courier and on QNS about small businesses across Queens. The goal is to highlight mom-and-pop shops and their history, as well as their successes despite facing competition from bigger, well-known retailers; and the challenges they face in the current economic environment. If you’re a Queens small business owner and interested in speaking with our editorial staff about your successes and challenges, call 718-224-5863, ext. 204, or email rpozarycki[@]qns.com.