Any time Rick Cantelmi sees an obituary of one of his former customers in the local newspaper, he takes a picture of it.
He began the ritual several years ago as a way to commemorate the lives of loyal customers from his hardware store. Cantelmi has since accumulated a camera roll of 345 individuals.
“That’s a pretty crazy number,” he said. “But these people mean a lot to me.”
Rick Cantelmi owns Cantelmi’s Hardware on 521 E. 4 St. This year, the store celebrates 100 years of serving the South Side. The family store has survived The Great Depression, World War II, the closing of the Bethlehem Steel plant and a global pandemic.
Rick Cantelmi’s grandfather, Placido Cantelmi, was an Italian immigrant. He opened the store in 1922 in a location 100 feet from the store’s current space. His son, Louis Cantelmi, took over in 1963.
Rick Cantelmi, who took over in 1991, now runs the store. His son, Patrick, will soon be the fourth generation to operate Cantelmi’s.
Placido Cantelmi’s carved wooden chair still resides by the front register. The family safe, which reads P.A. CANTELMI in large yellow letters, remains in the back office — relics passed down through the generations.
Though he is 68 years old, Rick Cantelmi said he has no intention of retirement. He said even scaling back from years of 60 and 70 hour weeks to now 32 hour weeks feels unnatural.
“I feel like I’m retired at 32 hours a week,” Cantelmi said. “I come to work six days a week for five or six hours a day now. My dad was still coming into work in his 80s, and I hope to do the same.”
Tom Marks is the store manager and long-time employee of Cantelmi’s. After 18 years at the hardware store, he said he appreciates its close-knit atmosphere.
“It’s great to work for a family business rather than a Home Depot or Lowe’s,” he said.
Cantelmi said the business is currently building a half million dollar warehouse behind the store to keep up with the success of their new E-commerce store, created by his son.
Though the store has increased their online presence, Cantelmi said they have still managed to maintain a personalized customer experience.
Kim Repasch, an employee of 15 years, said Cantelmi’s is hands on.
“We try to take care of our customers,” she said. “We try to do a little bit better than the (larger) stores. Most of the time, I believe we do, because we get a lot of our customers that come back.”
Cantelmi said it is common to get customers whose fathers and grandfathers used to buy from the store.
“In the back, I have a receipt from 1936 for two pieces of glass,” he said. “This guy gave it to me about 15 or 20 years ago and said, ‘Here, my father had bought this from your grandfather in 1936.’”
Cantelmi said he knows almost every repeat customer at the store. He said he sees their interactions as more than just business transactions.
Repasch said she feels the same way.
She recently took a leave of absence from work in June and July to fight respiratory complications from COVID-19. She said several of her customers checked in on her health, just as a friend would.
“I was on oxygen 24/7,” Repasch said. “My customers sent me cards at home to make sure that I was doing well. Some of them I’m just very, very close with.”
Repasch said prior to COVID-19, Cantelmi’s held their very own “breakfast club.” Customers could come to the store in the mornings to enjoy coffee and donuts with one another before the work day began.
A picture of the devoted club attendees hangs above the entranceway today.
“They were here every morning,” she said. “There were mornings they would go through two or three pots of coffee, just sitting over there talking.”
The last living member of the club passed away this fall at age 74, Repasch said. She keeps his obituary behind the front desk, a practice similar to Rick’s.
Today, Cantelmi said it pleases him to see patrons come in with their children, the new generation of customers. He said he knows almost every customer’s face and name by heart, a habit he anticipates his son will carry on.
Whether it’s Placido, Louis, Rick or Patrick behind the counter, Cantelmi’s presence on the South Side has never changed.
“The customers here we have aren’t customers,” Cantelmi said. “They are friends.”
Makes me feel sad that I never visited the store during my Lehigh years. Excellent story. Do they have an A-Treat soda bottle with a faucet attached (advertised a Allentown produced epoxy)?