Sunday, April 14, 2024

Al and Paul Pacheco at Inman Square Hardware in early January. (Photo: Andy Zucker)

What keeps a family-owned, family-operated business going in Cambridge for 46 years and counting? That is how long Inman Square Hardware, near the intersection of Cambridge and Hampshire streets, has been in operation – since 1975, when Alvaro (Al) Pacheco bought the store with two partners. 

As a young man making his way in a new country – he was born in Portugal and goes back from time to time – Al Pacheco wasn’t sure a hardware business would be a good fit for him, but he decided to give it a try. As time passed, his partners left to pursue other businesses while Pacheco found he enjoyed working in the store. 

Now in his 70s and still going strong, the founder is assisted by his son, Paul Pacheco. In early January, when asked to provide more information about the business, Al Pacheco suggested his son would be the right one to talk with because “he’s more up-to-date.” 

By now, Paul Pacheco has worked in the store about 30 years. He discovered that he, too, enjoys being in the hardware business. Other family members pitch in – Paul Pacheco’s sister does the bookkeeping, his nephew works on the floor and his daughter, a college student, works part-time. Decades ago, Al Pacheco helped his brother, now deceased, start Stoughton Hardware. Hardware almost seems to be part of the family’s genes.

Customer service, customer loyalty

The Pachecos bought the building housing their Inman Square Hardware decades ago. (Photo: Marc Levy)

According to Paul Pacheco, who was interviewed in the store, the most important key to longevity is dedication to customer service: being friendly, polite and knowledgeable. Many customers simply come in with questions. “Hear them out,” he said. “If you provide good customer service and have a deep hardware selection that people remember, they say to themselves, ‘I know I can find it there,’ and then hopefully they will come back.”

Al Pacheco is unusually cheerful and friendly, often whistling when not talking with people. “Good morning, how can we help you? Life is good in the neighborhood,” he said as one customer entered. “Happy new year. The sun is shining, the birds are singing,” he said to another. “Okay, my friend, anything else for you?” Asked whether his father is always like that, Paul Pacheco said, “All the time. What you see is what you get: at home, at parties, here. His personality is fantastic. People come in and they tell us that.”

Conversely, the attitudes of customers themselves are a key to staying in business for so long. In his experience, “this community stays with the local businesses instead of supporting the big boxes. That’s a big part of why we stay in business: the community.” Despite the prevalence of Internet shopping, most customers still prefer to shop for hardware in person, he said.

Inman Square Hardware’s customer community includes contractors, property management companies, homeowners or renters, and the city of Cambridge itself. The city’s building maintenance department is part of the commercial base that makes up about 60 percent of the store’s business. 

Keys to success

Hardware stores that guarantee buying a certain amount of merchandise each year can purchase from Ace Hardware, and Ace is the store’s main supplier – but Inman Square Hardware is not a franchise, or large enough to be allowed to advertise using Ace’s network. Though its inventory is not as extensive as some other hardware stores, such as Tag’s in Porter Square, Inman Square Hardware takes advantage of every inch of available space to provide a large selection of products, as well as offering services such as key making and replacing broken glass. 

The Portuguese connection is another key to the Pachecos’ success. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have come since whaling days to Massachusetts from Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde and other places where Portuguese is spoken. Although that population is smaller than it once was, Cambridge, especially East Cambridge, remains home to many Portuguese speakers – and the offices of the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers – as well as many businesses with Portuguese connections. The Pachecos are fluent.

Timing can also be critical, and decades ago Al Pacheco bought the 1922 building that houses the store. “I don’t think we’d be here today if he hadn’t bought the building,” his son said. “We would have been priced out at some point; you see that more and more.” Al Pacheco also expanded the store over the years, buying a former laundromat on one side in the 1980s and, in the 1990s, a smoke shop on the other. 

Flexibility and tradition

Flexibility in the face of change is another ingredient of success, and Cambridge is always changing. As one indicator of change, the first, small Legal Sea Foods restaurant was just around the corner in Inman Square in 1975. That location is now a clinic, while over the decades Legal grew into a business empire serving millions of customers. (It was forced to sell in December 2020, in what one news article called “a pandemic fire sale.”)

Of course, the pandemic affected almost every business. The first six months of lockdown were exceptionally busy at Inman Square Hardware. “People were home and I saw they were reinvesting some of their money into their homes. They were doing all kinds of projects, just anything to keep their sanity. People were planting; soil, pots, seeds … the kind of stuff we had never sold before,” Paul Pacheco said. “You need to cater to what people want, and what they need.” The Pachecos were fortunate in the pandemic. “It’s kind of sad, because a lot of people and businesses were hurting, and we were slammed.” But the surge was temporary, and the volume now is about the same as before the pandemic.

At the same time, he added, “my dad is a little bit old-school, so he likes pen and paper.” Perhaps the day will come when the store installs point-of-sale software at the cash register. Otherwise, there are no major changes planned as this family business approaches the 50-year mark serving its neighborhood and the city.