Looking back at 50 years of Modern Hardware

Modern Hardware has been an important institution in the Oakdale Neighborhood with a history that began in 1924. Founded by three members of the Boersma family as the Oakdale Fuel & Materials Company, the store originally sold mostly coal, which arrived by rail on a railroad spur near Kalamazoo Avenue. But moving into the 1950s, the store began to modernize and shift toward consumer and retail hardware needs. This is also around when Tunis Vander Lugt, who later became owner, began working at and eventually managing the store. After finding greater success marketing hardware needs directly to homeowners, builders, and contractors, previous owners Fred and Jewel Boersma more than doubled the sales floor and created space for expanded hardware offerings.

This new business model was advertised as “Grand Rapids’ most modern hardware,” a name that would eventually stick when, in 1970, the store was formally reincorporated as Modern Hardware. During this time, Vander Lugt, still the store manager, and his wife, Ethel, who had begun working in the store too, would reach an agreement to purchase the company — where it has stayed in the Vander Lugt family for almost 51 years.

Over the years, Modern Hardware has seen a significant shift in business trends and practices but has consistently emphasized customer service and community connections to stay relevant in changing times. Like other hardware stores in the 1950s, the store once carried more than just hardware, including things like housewares, dishes, small appliances, hunting and fishing gear, and even toys on their shelves. One of the current owners, Elaine Dreyer, daughter of Tunis and Ethel Vander Lugt, says, “When I was young, the hardware store had toys and housewares. And that had to change as early as the Meijer started to come into the picture.” But the changes didn’t stop there. 

“It has been evolving since then. Focusing on the things we can sell. The things we are experts on,” she says. “We have high-quality tools for builders, roofers. Things you can’t always get at a department store.” She says focusing on what sets their store apart, delivering focused customer service, is key “or else you’re always fighting the dollar.” This emphasis on serving the unique community is what motivated them to offer bilingual customer service so those they serve feel welcome in their stores. 

Now, Modern Hardware focuses exclusively on hardware but remains committed to serving the unique needs of the community. Dreyer says, “We draw people from all walks of life. It’s unique to a lot of businesses. Our store caters to our community, the things they need for their homes. On the hardware side, we have the everyday nuts and bolts, everyday paint, all the things you need to repair, upgrade or make improvements to your home.” 

When considering how Modern Hardware has maintained its success over the years, Dreyer attributes it first to her strong faith in God and second to dedicated hard work and service. “Customer service sets us apart. We emphasize greatly that we want to help you with your project whether it’s two screws, the right fastener, or if you need a screen repair; we are going to help you with that,” she says. “It’s that personalization, really waiting on you regardless of the dollar amount on your project that sets us apart. It’s important; every customer is a part of what makes this business. “ 

This dedication to service was demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic when, as an essential business, Modern Hardware closed only briefly, for the safety of their staff, before finding a new way to deliver the hardware their community needed. Initially, Modern Hardware closed its doors to walk-in customers but quickly began to offer curbside and delivery services using online or telephone orders. Dreyer says, “Our employees did a great job of rising to the occasion.” She adds, “Our employees are great. We consider them a part of our family and we couldn’t do it without them. We have a lot of really dedicated people here.” 

Thanks to that dedication, Modern Hardware survived the pandemic and is seeing rising sales as contractors go back to work. Even in the face of the most recent lumber shortage, which Dreyer reports has slowed business somewhat, she remains confident moving forward, especially as new projects begin. In the wake of COVID-19, Dreyer says Modern Hardware is “So thankful [to] our community for supporting us, even when it was difficult. So many reached out and thanked us for what we were doing. The outpouring was incredible. We are thankful for our customers who stuck by us because we couldn’t have done it without them too.”

Photos by Isabel Media Studios

Southeast Strong is a series funded by the City of Grand Rapids that is focused on the multi-faceted neighborhoods of the city's southeast corridor. Through the exploration of the neighborhoods' entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and community members, the series' local storytellers will highlight the resiliency of resident voices and projects, especially during COVID-19 recovery.

Grant Kammer is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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