This story is part of the West Side Rag’s new push to cover more of the Morningside Heights community from West 110th to 125th streets. If you have any tips for the area, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
By Gus Saltonstall
For nearly 40 years, any customer that walked into University Hardware & Housewares in Morningside Heights has been greeted or helped by Bob Fendell.
Fendell first started working for his uncle at the family business on Broadway between West 113th and 114th streets in 1984. Two years later, he took over the store’s management and has been there ever since.
University Hardware & Housewares first opened on the block in 1938 after Fendell’s family, who lived in the Morningside Heights neighborhood at the time, “felt there was a need for it” in the community.
The store serves as a go-to destination for incoming Columbia University and Barnard College students setting up their living spaces, along with full-time community members looking for a new lightbulb or shower cap.
“It is pretty exciting because you don’t know if a customer is going to be the next president of the United States or a person that will come across the next invention that cures a dangerous disease,” Fendell told West Side Rag, over the phone, about interacting with the students who shop at the store. “They’re all special in their own way, but someone is going to be the next Einstein. That’s what I find most exciting about it, you don’t know who is walking through that door.”
The store has gone through multiple iterations since Fendell took over in the 80s.
The original location on Broadway and 113th Street was much smaller, and in 2000 the business opened a second store on the other side of the avenue. One of the locations sold hardware supplies while the other outpost had houseware items.
In 2018, Fendell was able to sign a lease for a larger location on the same block, and he combined the two stores into one new home for University Hardware & Housewares at 2906 Broadway.
Fendell did not expect to work at the family hardware store. He instead started his career in corporate America, working for Merrill Lynch as a salesman.
“I guess I wasn’t good at it,” he said with a chuckle. “It was a lot of cold calls and people hanging up the phone on you. My uncle was getting ready to retire and he had no children. We were very close as he was also my godfather, and he asked me if I wanted to learn the business.”
“I told him, sure,” he added. “The store was a good opportunity for me.”
The Morningside Heights business sells home goods, kitchen supplies, bedroom and bathroom accessories, storage and organizational products, hardware, lighting, travel products, and more.
When it comes to Fendell’s favorite part of his longtime job, though, it’s not the products, but the interaction that happens with people within the hardware store.
“Definitely the people,” Fendell said when asked about what he likes most about going to work. “People come in because they need something — you’re not trying to sell them something they don’t need. They want to fix a lamp switch or a lightbulb, or need a pillow.”
“It’s not you trying to call somebody on the phone that you don’t know and sell them a product they don’t need,” he told the Rag in an interview, which he paused multiple times to help customers find products.
Fendell, who has two daughters that happily work in other careers, is the last member of the family to still work at the store. He hopes that the business will eventually be taken over by a group of his longtime employees.
“There are lots of repeat customers and friends that we see a lot, even their dogs become friends of the store and get their treats. I enjoy going to work, I enjoy it a lot, it is not a chore for me,” Fendell said. “I can’t believe it’s gone so fast.”
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