Suddenly famous

Lehman’s hardware store in Kidron — “the gateway to Amish country,” as marketing director Glenda Lehman Ervin calls it — is one of those stores that surprises even the most seasoned of shoppers, a place that can best be described as the 19th-century equivalent of a Home Depot.

There are whole departments in the 15,000-square-foot store devoted to decorative Old World hardware, oil-burning lamps and accessories, wood-burning stoves, grain mills, water pumps, garden tools and housewares such butter churns, cast-iron pots and pans, and wooden spoons. The business, as founder Jay Lehman proudly points out, is stocked and staffed to serve the area’s Amish community and its “nonelectric” needs.

But interspersed among the old-fashioned are familiar, modern-looking conveniences modified to operate in what many people would consider less-than-ideal situations. There are waterless composting toilets for areas without sewer lines or septic tanks; gas-powered refrigerators and hot water tanks for places without electricity; a Speed Queen wringer-washer imported from Saudi Arabia that Lehman outfitted with a gas engine for spots with little water pressure or little water; and wind-up flashlights and radios for use almost anywhere.

Lehman Ervin opens a guest book on a table near the cash register. As she turns the pages filled during the last few weeks, the names of visitors from far-flung locales appear with surprising frequency. Lehman Ervin, a woman in cropped khakis with a mane of auburn curls, rattles off the names of states and countries like a waitress might recite the day’s selection of pies.

“We’ve got California, Arizona, New York, Mississippi, Iowa, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Italy, Kenya, Germany, the Netherlands,” she says. “And this is just the second of September. There’s more people who signed the guest book from out of Ohio than in Ohio.”

The book, along with the packed parking lot behind the store, is testament to the Lehman family’s claim that the hardware store is the most famous in the nation — heck, maybe even on the face of the Earth.

“We have the largest compendium in the world of nonelectric stuff,” Lehman Ervin says.

The store sells its wares to people in all 50 states and 162 countries through its 24-hour, toll-free order line and Web site. The clientele, which Lehman Ervin describes as a combination of “the serious and the curious,” includes hobbyists, nostalgia buffs, campers, boaters, vacation homeowners, ranchers, missionaries, doctors in Third World hospitals, environmentalists, self-sufficient individualists Lehman Ervin calls “homesteaders,” even celebrities.

“Julia Child owns a stove from us,” Lehman Ervin says. “Martha Stewart has purchased from us before. And Burt Wolf (host of the CNN-produced “What’s Cooking with Burt Wolf”) was just here. He cooked on a wood cookstove, interviewed my brother and spent the day with us.”

The last thing Jay Lehman had on his mind when he bought the original 30-by-40-foot hardware store with the financial backing of his father in 1955 was founding an institution. He was just another young, out-of-work mechanic who needed a job, a devout Mennonite who’d recently returned from Germany after a three-year stint with a church group that built houses for refugees.

“It was just an ordinary, small hardware store with about three employees that catered to the local people, but primarily the Amish people,” he said.

In 1961, he returned to mission work in Africa with his wife, Ella Mae, and baby son, Galen, leaving the store in the hands of his father and brother. (Lehman Ervin was born to the couple in what was then known as the Belgian Congo; her younger brother, Kevin, was born in Nairobi, Kenya.) When he returned in 1973, things were pretty much the same.

And then the oil crisis hit.

Lehman remembers buying a truckload of about 60 wood-burning stoves at that time for his Amish customers, a purchase that should have kept the store stocked for approximately three years.

“Instead, it only lasted three months,” he says.

The stoves were snapped up by a new breed of customer: homeowners who feared their supply of heating oil would be interrupted.

Because Lehman’s already had a long-established relationship with manufacturers, the store was able to continue offering the much-sought-after item while others tried to land their first shipment. Soon, these new customers were asking Lehman, “What else do you have?”

Lehman’s missionary contacts also began getting in touch with the store after receiving his letters about products he thought they’d find useful in remote areas.

“We started sending out brochures, putting pamphlets in our letters about grain mills, water pumps, washing machines, gas refrigerators, all these things people wanted to buy when they didn’t have electricity,” Lehman says. “It just snowballed.”

The store’s mail-order division was born when the first catalog was produced in the late ’70s.

“Our business just kept building,” he says. “Every three or four years, we’d build another warehouse and hire more people.”

In time, another group, those without electricity, found its way to Lehman’s.

“There was a time when we thought that the only people who don’t have electricity are the Amish people and the poor people,” Lehman says. “But we soon found out that that’s not the case. There are thousands of people in the United States who don’t have electricity — some of ’em because they don’t want it, some of ’em because they can’t afford it. Some of ’em just can’t get it even if they wanted it because they’re so remote.”

The latest self-sufficiency craze occurred as the result of the Y2K scare, which co-owner Galen Lehman says peaked in early 1999. The hardware store was overrun by people. Some simply wanted to pick up a few prudent extras, the same stuff they might keep on hand to weather an unexpected ice storm or heavy snow.

Others, according to Galen Lehman, feared a disaster similar to that engendered by the Nazi siege of Leningrad, Russia, during World War II. Worse yet, they had no idea whatsoever what they needed to survive the ordeal or how to use it.

The business fielded as many as 200 “how-to” calls a day; employees were used to handling about 50. Sacks of mail arrived, and orders that were normally shipped within 24 hours were delayed five to seven weeks during the height of the frenzy.

The store hired and trained approximately 30 people to assist its 75 employees, an act Galen Lehman says “goes completely against our grain” because of the temporary nature of the employment.

“We educated a lot of people,” Lehman Ervin says. “It was like Lehman University for awhile.”

In many cases, employees did their best to talk customers out of buying things. Lehman Ervin cites a classic example: Her brother convinced a Miami woman to use her gas grill for emergency cooking purposes instead of ordering a $3,000 wood cookstove for her apartment balcony.

“Maybe what we should have done was just sold them whatever they wanted and not worried about teaching them anything,” Galen Lehman says. “It would have been a lot easier for us. But we felt like we needed to keep operating our business as if (Y2K) wasn’t happening.”

But under normal circumstances, educating people is what Jay and Galen Lehman enjoy most about their business. The store employs an Amish woman to explain the fine art of making butter, cheese, bread, applesauce, cider, preserves, sausage, etc., with items in stock. Customers regularly hear “Martha, line two; Martha, line two” over the store’s paging system.

“That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on,” Lehman Ervin says. “Not only do we sell these products, but we have the people on staff who know how to use them. I don’t want to diss any of the large retail chains. But very often, they don’t have what we call product specialists on staff.

“In our stove department alone, we probably have 110 years of wood stove experience.”

In-store specialists are complemented by, a how-to Web site created by a customer in the mid-1990s. The Lehmans purchased the site in 1998 when the customer announced he could no longer afford the server or the programming needed to update it.

Although family members chuckle about the irony of logging on to a computer to learn more about organic gardening or chopping wood, they fully recognize the importance of the site.

“When you give knowledge to people like we did during Y2K, they will hopefully remember us, and they will come back,” Lehman Ervin says.

The Lehmans say another key to their phenomenal success is that they’ve never ventured out of their niche market, although they’ve certainly added product lines and brands over the years. Those with new people-powered products regularly seek the Lehmans out. Galen Lehman talks enthusiastically about the hand-cranked blender he’s importing from Venezuela, a vast improvement over the pneumatic-powered counterparts currently available to the Amish.

Conversely, Lehman Ervin says the store takes once-common items to manufacturers and craftsmen and puts them back into production. Examples include an 1878 cast iron apple peeler, one of the store’s most popular items, for which the family purchased the patent; a corn planter; and an oak replica of a 1917 Hoosier cabinet, which Lehman Ervin describes as an antique baking station. Galen Lehman says he doesn’t believe in the words, “It can’t be done.”

“People tell us, ‘You’re on a dead-end road because, sooner or later, you’re going to run out of people who are interested in your stuff,'” he says. “And I guess my attitude is, I don’t really care.

“If I can be the best at this, I’ll be happy.” How to reach: Lehman’s, (330) 857-1330 or