Brooklyn’s Crest Hardware Grows into Green Destination and Community Center
When Manny Franquinha opened Crest Hardware, in 1962, the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, weren’t lined with tattoo parlors, ramen shops, and arcade-themed bars. Back then, the neighborhood was predominantly blue-collar, the sort of tight-knit immigrant community where the owner of a hardware store might turn on the lights only if there was a customer at the door.
Manny eventually moved his store across the street to its current location, and then, over the years, he slowly purchased the surrounding buildings to expand his retail space. Now, 54 years later, Manny’s son Joe is at the helm of Crest. Joe has built on and expanded the business to better serve the ever-changing neighborhood around him, but two aspects of the business have remained the same.
The first is Crest’s willingness to evolve with the neighborhood. In the years since Joe took over from his father, Crest has added not only a 5,000 square foot Urban Garden Center but also a new paint section that features the full line of paints by Pratt & Lambert. The second is an unwavering dedication to community. As proof of this, Manny, even at the age of 87, still spends two days a week at Crest, chatting with and giving advice to loyal customers. These commitments have paid off: In 2013, Popular Mechanics featured Crest as a “Hardware Store We Love.” In 2015, the Village Voice named Crest the best hardware store in New York City.
A Garden Grows in Brooklyn
In 2007, Joe Franquinha decided to take a risk. Over the years, he had watched Williamsburg undergo rapid gentrification. Suddenly, gritty Williamsburg was home to a new generation of green thumbs, and Joe wanted to capitalize on that new reality. He tried to convince his father that there was money to be made in the plant business, but Manny, a traditional hardware man, was resistant.
Joe has never hewn to tradition. After graduating from Fordham, he struck out on his own and began to make a career as an actor. His biggest role was as Maddie, the mascot for the WNBA’s New York Liberty. But even as he added a few film credits to his name, he never truly left Crest. He had continued to work part-time at the store since college, and he eventually realized that his future had been staring him in the face. Now, he wanted to take the family business in a new direction. He knew that something had to be done or else Crest would not survive.
As Joe put it, “I knew I’d either get a pat on the back or a pink slip.”
That summer, his father left for a two-week vacation to Portugal, and, in his absence, Joe acted. When Manny came home to discover the racks of perennials out back, all he said was, “Well, now you better make this work.”
Crest’s Urban Garden Center has more than just worked—it’s blossomed. Crest has since added 5,000 square feet of outdoor retail space, including the miniature barn that houses Franklin, Crest’s resident pot-bellied pig. Franklin—who has been profiled by the New York Times—has over 2,000 followers on Instagram; on Facebook, he is listed as a “Public Figure,” and his page has received almost 3,000 likes. He is in such high demand that Crest posts a sign outside along Metropolitan Avenue to let customers know if Franklin’s busy schedule will allow time for visitors.
Crest also closed off the original garden center and converted it into a heated, year-round greenhouse, the domain of an African gray parrot named Finlay. The garden, as well as the greenhouse, hosts numerous community events and parties throughout the year.
Joe said, “We are now the go-to source in North Brooklyn and beyond for everything from annuals and perennials to tropicals, herbs, veggies, trees, and seasonal items.”
The Future of Family-Owned
According to Joe, the average age of a hardware store in America is 68 years old. Crest Hardware was founded 54 years ago, and Joe is determined to make sure Crest beats the averages. One of the tactics Joe is using in his war against math is expanding Crest’s visibility in the community. In 2009, he started the annual Crest Hardware Art Show, which features hardware-themed art from local artists. The Crest show has gained so much fame that the Wall Street Journal called it “a stepping stone to the acclaimed group shows at the level of MoMA PSI.”
Another of Joe’s tactics is more traditional: merchandising with brands that have equity. One of these brands is Pratt & Lambert. When Crest introduced Pratt & Lambert to its customers, it dedicated as much time to building the paint center as it did to the Urban Garden Center.
As Joe said, “If you want to be a paint destination, you have to fully commit to it.”
The fact that Pratt & Lambert is one of the oldest paint manufacturers in America carries weight with Crest’s customers who are also fans of Purdy, another heritage sundries brand offered by Crest. Both Pratt & Lambert and Purdy represent the kind of time-tested quality that keeps small, family-owned hardware stores like Crest alive.
“Pratt & Lambert fits seamlessly into a local store,” Joe said. “They hold hands to combine the brands of the store and of the paint.”
More Than Just Hardware
Part of Crest’s commitment to community is simply putting smiles on customers’ faces—Franklin takes care of that—but it also includes the investment of time and resources. For years, Manny sat on the board of St. Nick’s Alliance, which provides jobs and housing, as well as other services, for Williamsburg residents in need. Joe also spent a few years serving on the board, and now he hosts fundraisers in Crest’s garden for the School Settlement Association, an after-school program sponsored by St. Nick’s Alliance. He also donates his time to P.S. 132, the local elementary school, where he reads to children and provides supplies for their Kite Festival.
“These neighbors and parents are my customers,” Joe said, “so it goes a long way in solidifying our relationships."
Those relationships grew even stronger in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Joe described it as “the saddest and lowest point in my life. I watched the city get turned upside down and watched people around me suffer like I had never seen.”
Joe, along with other employees from Crest, responded by organizing the store as a collection point for food and supplies and then driving them to the hardest-hit areas in Far Rockaway.
Joe recalled the experience, saying, “It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Stranger next to stranger, standing upstairs in our storage room, making sandwiches, making lunch bags, boxing up canned goods, organizing clothes, cleaning supplies.”
The following year, Crest was renovating, and the store used lumber salvaged from the houses Hurricane Sandy destroyed. Now, every time Joe looks at the new wood floors, he is reminded not only of how fortunate he is but also of how important it is to care about the community that provides him business.