By Rick Romano
In the coming weeks, the Joe Harris Paint & True Value hardware store at the southeast corner of 33rd and Wallace Streets in Bridgeport will close permanently, ending 60 years of providing products, advice, and friendship to a neighborhood already mourning the loss.
The store’s history is a testament to another era’s work ethic. Owner Joe Harris opened the store after taking it over from a previous owner on what was then a quiet block in 1961. He worked 50-plus hours weekly until age and health issues got in the way. Bill Harris, Joe’s nephew, a longtime store employee since his teens, then took the reins and the hours. He now faces his own retirement with no other family in the storekeeping pipeline.
Georgiann, Joe’s wife, said that pipeline was broken by different ambitions.
“We have five children,” she said. “They all went to college and wanted to do something different. This was not their dream.”
Nonetheless, the couple’s three sons all worked there at one time. Tom, the oldest sibling, said the store experience taught retail entrepreneurship spiced with customer relations and socialization as well as what dedicating long, productive, hard hours can accomplish. That work ethic rubbed off well to the entire family as he, two brothers, and two sisters have blazed their own careers in various sectors of manufacturing and finance.
“My dad made sure we knew how to do all the necessary things that make the store successful,” Tom said, noting that included everything from inventory to cleaning up to delivery.
Those qualities endured throughout the store’s history, from its independent first 40 years through the last two decades, when it affiliated with the national True Value name. Even that was merely a buying strategy, Tom said, adding that the most enduring brand has been the store’s distinct quality of independence.
Longtime customers recognize that brand, speaking of its passing as though they were losing an old friend.
“It’s always been a place you could go to get just one nut and one bolt or one screw if you needed just that,” said Matt Marich, who grew up in the neighborhood. “This has always been a place to meet with your coffee and shoot the breeze, get the latest neighborhood gossip.”
He said the store’s local Little League sponsorships over the years indicate Joe’s commitment to the neighborhood.
Marich, as did others, even volunteered to get behind the counter and help customers when the store was busy.
“There was a group of customers who would go golfing every Wednesday with Joe,” Marich said. “Customers became friends. This has been a neighborhood institution. Like Cheers, everyone knew your name.”
People working at the store also knew their customers’ needs, said Patricia Reed, a local artist who relied on the careful, expert selection and mixing of paints she used in her creations that include local outdoor public projects.
“As a homeowner and as an artist, I used their services to the fullest,” Reed said. “They had water and oil-based paints or they would order them special. You can’t even begin to compare what they have done for me in terms of quality and service to big box stores.”
In addition, Reed said Joe and Bill gladly have given her advice over the phone or in person about a project that she is about to start or one that has gone wrong.
“That’s special,” she said.
When Reed saw the store’s closing sign in early July, “I started to cry,” she said. “I hope people pay attention and support the small businesses in our neighborhood.”
Colleen Mancari of the South Loop Chamber of Commerce, a Bridgeport community group, is hopeful.
“We have seen a lot of smaller stores open,” Mancari said. “Just because one store closes does not mean others will close. This is a strong business area.”
History of satisfied customers
Over the years, some customers took to social media outlets such as Yelp to extol the hardware store’s virtues and provide some color commentary.
“Joe is the man,” wrote Maureen S. “Often seen around this well-stocked paint and hardware store with a cigar in his mouth, he knows paint and he cares about your project. Support this place. They know more than the big box stores and are just around the corner. Pay two bucks more for your total purchase but save four minutes sitting in round-trip traffic to go somewhere else.”
Pablo T. wrote: “This place is great. Has most things you need around the house.”
Loosh M. added, “The place looks pretty much like you’d expect an ancient hardware store to: wood paneled, a little stale, walls covered from floor to ceiling with stuff, and filled with people who know their hammers. Despite the small size, they have almost anything you could expect.”
Current storekeeper Bill said his first experience working for Uncle Joe came from his father’s edict about 40 years ago.
“I was the oldest of six kids,” Bill said. “My father told me to go work for my uncle. I began cleaning up after school and putting away stock. Eventually, I waited on customers, cutting key, that sort of thing.”
These days, Bill has been discounting merchandise because, as he said, “A lot would have to be thrown out or given up as scrap metal.” As the days wind down, he remembers kids, their fathers, and their grandfathers who were customers.
“What will I miss the most?” Bill mused. “I’ll miss the puzzles that people brought in that they needed help figuring out. Relationships with customers who became friends. Some came to me when I was in the hospital. That was something.”
Running a neighborhood hardware store can be tough because “all your money is on the shelf,” Bill said.
He looks forward to a retirement that will include traveling with his wife and two daughters.
Georgiann said Joe, now in his late 80s, is hard of hearing and mostly homebound but retains the spirit of that storeowner who took a chance and made a go of it six decades ago.
“He would work there for the next 20 years, if he could,” she said. This is a close-knit community, and he remembers all the good people who came to the store. Joe is happy.”
Joe and Bill use the name Harris, though it’s not the family surname. That moniker is Hawrysz, of Ukrainian origin and difficult to spell or pronounce. In fact, Georgiann said Joe began using Harris when he was a student at Loyola University back in the 1950s, when he played basketball there. The name also fit better on the back of his uniform. Tom said he and his brothers were known by Harris when they worked the store but retain the family name otherwise.
Bill and Tom said an event will be held when the store closes at or near the end of August.
“We’re not ready yet, Tom said. “When we are, we will make it public.”
He said any event likely would be announced through a few Facebook pages—Bridgeport Southside Family and Friends, Bridgeport Chicago IL, and Joe Harris Paint and Hardware.