Every week, Our Town will celebrate our 45th anniversary by profiling a neighborhood business that has been around longer than we have. Know of a local business that should be on our list? Email us at email@example.com
In 1896, the New York City subway system was eight years from operation, Grover Cleveland was president, and Wankel’s Hardware opened for business on Third Ave and 88th Street.
One hundred and nineteen years later, Wankel’s is still family-owned and keeping locals supplied with tools, coffee makers, keys, and just about everything else. “In 1896, we were surrounded by mostly farmland and sold a lot of farming equipment and tools,” said Sean Wankel, 32. Now, of course, most of their clientele come from residential buildings, and the biggest-selling items shouldn’t surprise: air conditioners, light bulbs, and picture hangers.
Electric fans and beach balls fill one front window, while the other features a pyramid of 15 Black and Decker cordless drills and a sign which reads “29.99”. Inside, the aisles are filled with the usual hardware store mix of gardening tools and potting soil stationed right across from a variety of vacuum bags. One particular shelf has mushroom bags and garlic keepers hanging mere inches from lingerie bags and laundry bags.
“It’s nice to walk into a store and have someone offer to help,” said Donny Moss, a film maker and longtime neighbor and supporter of the store. “You don’t get that in big chain stores.”
With so many independent businesses closing shop, what does Wankel attribute for its success? “We have thrived these years by continuing to listen to the changing needs of our customers… From farm supplies in the late 1800’s, beer pails during the beer craze a few decades later, to all the light bulbs, cleaning, and paint supplies that the neighborhood needs today,” Wankel said.
Wankel, who has been vice president since 2009, is most proud of his family’s hiring practices. Led by president and owner (and Wankel’s aunt) Katherine Wankel, most of the store employees are hired via the International Rescue Committee, through the United Nations. “We hire people seeking political asylum and are so pleased that many have left us for very successful careers,” Sean Wankel says. He points to Van Tran, from Vietnam, who worked at the store from 1998-2004 and is now a professor of sociology at Columbia University.
Sean Wankel, who sees customers who’ve known him his entire life, is excited for the store’s future: “The main thing that we want for the future is the continued privilege of serving our wonderful neighbors of the Upper East Side,” he said. “To continue to be a part of this great community.”