Remember Central Hardware? How the Jewish family behind the empire left their mark on St. Louis

Longtime Central Hardware President Jim Cohen, great-grandson of the company’s founder, Morris Cohen, shows off memorabilia from his collection. Photo: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

The St. Louis central corridor in the early 1900s bustled. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition was winding down, business was booming and, as employees needed reliable transportation, streetcar lines were expanding.

The streetcar workers used pickaxes, sledgehammers and other tools that often deteriorated after a grueling day laying track. Often they would toss the broken or worn tools to the curb at the end of a shift. That’s when an opportunistic entrepreneur named Morris Cohen ventured out. He collected the discarded tools and repaired them at his tool shop at Fifth Street and Delmar Boulevard. Cohen turned a nifty profit selling the rehabbed equipment.

Thus began a long, successful run of the St. Louis-based Central Hardware empire, which by 1993 had 39 stores in six states, with 3,700 employees. It ranked number 19 nationally among hardware retailers..   

Cohen was good with his hands and had a gift for sales. He also was motivated to support his family after arriving in the United States as a poor immigrant in 1903.

“Morris was a Polish immigrant who came here with nothing and ended up leaving a legacy,” said his great-grandson Jim Cohen, Central Hardware’s president from 1987 through 1992. Members of the Cohen family not only ran the chain for 90 years, they also pioneered retail and marketing techniques still in use today. They also gave back to the community through volunteer and philanthropic efforts.

Nuts and bolts

Besides his skills in tool repair, Morris Cohen was good at retailing and dealing with customers.

“People would come in for the tools. They loved him,” said Jim Cohen, 76. “They would say, ‘Y’know, Mr. Cohen, could you get us some other items? Why don’t you have nuts and bolts?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, what do you need?’ They would reply, ‘I need a package of No. 10 screws.’ He would go out the back door of his little building, run down the alley and go in the back of a huge hardware distributor. He picked up a package of screws for a nickel, came back, put them in a bag and charged a dime.”

Morris was successful in building the Central Hardware brand, and once he started expanding, he bowed out. Cohen gave each one his four sons a store, then he moved to Jerusalem where he planned to be a rabbi. His nephew Julius ran Central Hardware until the early 1950s. That’s when Stanley Cohen took over.

Stanley Cohen (Jim Cohen’s father) was responsible for creating the brand image that still resonates with many St. Louisans. That image, of a store for the do-it-yourselfer, used taglines in its advertising that may ring familiar decades after the last store closed: “Everything from scoop to nuts.” “Orange-coated experts.” “We saw (for cut lumber), you save.” 

Stanley Cohen was a savvy businessman. He instituted greeters at the store entrance. In 1954, he was interviewed by Dave Garroway on “The Today Show” to explain the company’s latest innovation: an indoor lumber yard. 

“We were the first to take what had been a traditional outdoor part of the hardware business and move it indoors,” Jim Cohen said. “After that, everybody else did it. We were the first to have centralized checkout. You used to have to check out in one department, then walk to another department to buy something else.”

Big box stores like Walmart and the Home Depot are common sights in suburban centers around the country. The one-stop shopping model for large retail stores was also a hallmark of Central Hardware. The average store size was 55,000 square feet, which in the 1960s was considered huge. 

Central Hardware was also known for excellent customer service, and if a Cohen family member was working in the store, the personal attention went up a notch.

“They kept their employees forever,” said Mark Goldfeder, a regular customer of the store. “You went in there and asked for something, and the employees knew exactly where to go to find it for you.”

Goldfeder, 71, a member of Temple Emanuel, is a St. Louis streetcar aficionado who recalls the Central Hardware megastore where his father shopped.

“Their first really big store was at Kirkwood and Big Bend,” Goldfeder said. “I remember schlepping out there with the family.”

The Kirkwood store was popular with suburbanites. It was convenient, spacious and offered one-stop shopping. That business model was key to the chain’s growth. 

Community support

Central Hardware was the first sponsor of the St. Louis Senior Olympics. Cohen family members were volunteers in the Jewish community, and Stanley Cohen was active in Jewish Federation. 

Stanley’s wife, Shirley, was the consummate volunteer. She was the first woman to serve on the board of Jewish Hospital of St. Louis. She also was president of the Jewish Hospital Auxiliary and a founding member of the board of directors of the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation. One of her most prominent roles was as chair of the board of the Jewish Hospital School of Nursing, now known as the Goldfarb School of Nursing at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

“She was awarded the first and, to my knowledge, only doctorate of nursing degree posthumously at Goldfarb,” Jim Cohen said. “She also worked with Dr. Ira Kodner to start a fund for palliative care. And we established a scholarship in my mom’s name for palliative care at BJC, which is still there.

“I was in awe of her. She did everything so effortlessly. One of the things she did every summer was to host a nurses picnic at our home by the swimming pool. I was always given the job of lifeguard.”

As a lasting legacy to the Cohen family, the Shirley and Stanley Cohen Endowed Scholarship at BJC continues to support the education of promising nursing students. A similar scholarship exists at Washington University’s business school in Stanley Cohen’s name. If an applicant meets the criteria for the scholarship based on grades and he or she is a family member of a former Central Hardware employee, the applicant is automatically approved.

Jim Cohen said he and his family have a special sense of pride knowing that his parents’ contributions have had a lasting impact in St. Louis.

“Last year, I took my two daughters to the Goldfarb School of Nursing dinner, where they honor the scholarship recipients,” he said. “They knew their grandmother was special, but they didn’t have any idea how great she was and how many lives she touched. People would come over to the table and look at our name tag and say, ‘You’re related to Shirley Cohen?’ It’s a special feeling.”

The end of Central Hardware

In the 1960s, retail began changing. Stanley Cohen recognized that while Central Hardware was still growing, long term prospects did not favor a regional chain. He made the decision to sell the company to the conglomerate Interco (formerly International Shoe Co.).

In 1989, the parent company of Handy Andy purchased Central Hardware from Interco for $245 million. Central Hardware was part of the holding company Spirit Holding. Mounting debt combined with increased competition signaled the death knell of Central Hardware. The company lost $10 million a year from 1989 to 1993. Spirit Holding filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1993.

Central Hardware closed a number of stores when A-OK of Delaware, the parent company of Handy Andy, bought Central Hardware out of bankruptcy for $79 million. Two years later, Handy Andy was also bankrupt. The last Central Hardware stores closed by 1996.

In 1992, Handy Andy management forced Jim Cohen out. The end of his tenure, and of the brand, was painful.

“Every day, I miss the company,” he said. “I miss the people. We still get together every summer. It’s a Central Hardware reunion picnic. We had over 150 people two years ago, the last one before COVID. Some of them were children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of employees, but it was very close knit. It was the family business. There was always a Cohen involved.”