Words Vicki Ravlich-Horan, Images Ashlee DeCaires
Not many businesses can lay claim to foundations that are over 150 years old. Read Bros, in the heart of Thames can – literally and figuratively. Current owners, John and Nicola Read are the fifth generation of Reads to own and run the iconic hardware store.
Everywhere you look in this bustling store are reminders of its past. Russel Skeet, local historian and passionate Read Bros employee, points a few of these out. Like the concrete reinforcement tracks running under the floors. These were laid to support the weight of billiard tables and a key part of the story as to how Read Bros came to be on the main street in Thames.
Arthur Read, the second generation of Reads in Thames, advanced a loan in the 1930s to the Exchange Hotel on the then billiard saloon. When they defaulted on the loan, Arthur found himself the owner of the building. At this stage Read Bros Hardware was based in Grahamstown. So in 1935, Arthur took the opportunity to move the business to Pollen Street, where it can be found today bigger than ever having expanded into what was the Exchange Hotel next door in 1996.
For a business steeped in history, Read Bros are not stuck in the past. Instead, it is the lessons of the past generations and an honouring of the past that is helping propel Read Bros into the future.
One of the things that strikes you when you enter the store are the nuts and bolts – the wall of them that is, along with screws and nails. These can all be bought individually or the exact number you need. They’re dispensed to you in a good old fashioned and now somewhat back in fashion paper bag along with advice, if you need it.
I’m told the front counter is always grubby from people bringing in bits of machinery or equipment that needs fixing as the brains trust behind the counter try to help find the right part or solution. John says, “If we haven’t got it, we will direct people to another store in town that will. And if there isn’t another option in town we will try and get it in.” And if all else fails they’ll try to make it! This solution-based customer service is one of the reasons if you visit Read Bros on any given day the shop will be humming with activity.
In a family business, people are key, and this is very much the feeling you get when you walk into Read Bros. Whether you stumbled in because of the eye-catching display or you are in need of that whatchamacallit, the welcome and attention will be the same. If you need a new handle for that trusty spade or you’re after a coffee plunger for the bach, have a carpentry project you need advice on, or a looking for a fun gift, Read Brothers is the place to go.
We came to check out the homewares department, a key part of traditional hardware stores but one that has given way to outdoor furniture and plants in chain stores everywhere. The bringing back of the homewares department was the brainchild of Sue Gwynne. Sue saw the glazed over eyes of many of the women who accompanied their partners into the store.
With a keen eye for design and an understanding of Read Bros, Sue has created Forage. Here, carefully curated homewares sit seamlessly in a traditional hardware store. And just as not all women walk into a hardware store dazed or bored, not all men bypass Forage.
I see meat grinders of varying sizes to make sausages, while some see burley makers. There is good old fashioned, now very trendy, enamelware which is also perfect for those that camp or fish. Beautiful tea towels and ecofriendly hand knitted dishcloths sit beside bakeware and essential kitchen kit like the stainless-steel bowls. Like the bowls, which are made in Dunedin, everything is thoughtfully and carefully sourced.
This is a store that has it all, a fantastic range – from John Bulls to motor mowers, kitchen scales to gold pans. But more than the stock it has the heart. So next time you are in Thames pop into Read Bros, I promise you will leave with a smile, if nothing else!
Read Bros, 308 Pollen Street, Thames