It’s July 1964. Downtown Rochester. Joseph Avenue. And the city is tearing itself apart. The predominantly black community is rebelling, boiling over when rumors of police brutality against blacks ignited a fire that burned for three days. People are throwing bricks, shots are fired and orders are shouted to the National Guard, which was called into duty for the first time in U.S. history in a Northern city.
Four people are dead, 350 are injured, and nearly 1,000 are arrested. Caught in the path of chaos, 204 local storefronts are either torched, looted or damaged. Caught in the path of the chaos, Sniderman’s Hardware is passed over by the masses.
“It was a big thing recently with the anniversary of the race riots, and there was a lot of groups from, like, MCC and other schools and they had tours,” says Jeff Sniderman, current owner and grandson of the shop’s founder, Sam Sniderman. “Part of their tour was stopping here, and I had to give a speech. They had questions, and a lot of their questions were, ‘This place, why wasn’t it touched from the riot? How come the buildings right next door got burned, but not this one?’ And that goes back to the reputation thing. My grandfather would give folks credit who didn’t have any money. He’d say, ‘Pay me next week when you have money.’ He’d go to their house, fix stuff for them, show them how to light their hot-water tank pilots, after-hours and doesn’t charge them. So, when it’s time to burn down the white Jewish guy’s place, I guess, they said, ‘No, no, leave that guy alone. He helps us out.’ He was part of the family or part of the neighborhood.”
That reputation that the Sniderman name had built proved stronger than hate in 1964. Over the next 50 years, it’s proven stronger than change, stronger than big-box stores, and stronger than any recession.
“A few years ago, there was a recession, and people would ask, ‘How’s your store doing?’” Jeff says. “I think, down here, I don’t know if they’re always in a recession, but it’s lower income. So, there wasn’t any recession, really, for those folks were already on government services or had their tiny side jobs or odd-job guy. So, we were always just as busy and, if anything, we sold used stuff like hot-water tanks and furnaces. If anything, we got busier because people didn’t have the money to buy new stuff, so used furnaces and hot-water tanks became pretty popular.”
Sam Sniderman built a reputation the way he built the store itself, piece by piece. Sam started out with, of all things, a toy store across the street from the Sniderman’s Hardware location at 519 Joseph Ave. There, he sold bocce ball sets, volleyball nets, and horseshoes. Sam seized an opportunity when he purchased Ma’s Old Fashioned Root Beer bottling plant and moved his operation to what would be its only home from then on. He turned from toys to tools, and became a place the neighborhood could rely on to have everything they needed to get by.
“My grandfather’s reputation is why we’re still here. People know Sniderman’s; it’s been here a long time. The neighborhood shops here and you hear a lot from people saying, ‘Don’t go anywhere! Please, don’t go anywhere! I don’t know what I’d do!’ Things like that. I think it comes down to customer service. The guy that makes a key here is the same guy that’s been making the keys for 10 years.”
Jeff Sniderman—an accomplished chef by trade who actually used to cook for Jimmy Dean—not only continues that reputation as the reluctant face of the business, he strengthens it. When big-box stores such as Home Depot or Lowe’s don’t have older or unique pieces of plumbing or heating, Sniderman’s is often where they’ll send customers. At Sniderman’s, the guy you talk to in the store to do a job is the guy who shows up at your door.
“If you go to Home Depot and ask, ‘Can you install a hot-water tank?’ then Roto-Rooter shows up to your house,” Jeff says. “Which isn’t a bad thing, I guess, but here, the people that install it are here. The people that are here know the product. We have a rental business, which big-box stores have, too, but we rent to people without credit cards.
“I think that goes back to that 80-20 rule: 20% of my customers give me 80% of my business, and 80% of my customers give the other 20%. And so we know most of our customers. ... I think we all like somewhere you walk in the door and it’s like “Cheers” whenever you walk in.”
It is 2015, and the neighborhood takes comfort in the fact that Sniderman’s is still there, and still theirs. It belongs to them, and they take care of it the way Sam did back then and the way Jeff does now.