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New business owners go for 'old-time' feel at Halls Road hardware store

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Old Lyme — There's a new owner at the hardware store on Halls Road, where the hammer is being passed to a Connecticut newcomer who wasn't even born when the Christiansens bought the place more than a quarter-century ago.

Now Christiansen Hardware is becoming Old Lyme Hardware.

Jessica Talerico, 24, officially took over this week as Bill and Nancy Christiansen stepped back to enjoy retirement and grandchildren.

"It wasn't a question of whether or not we were going to sell. It was whether we were going to find the right people to sell the store to," Bill Christiansen said. "To continue as a service to the community, that was more important to us than anything else."

Bill Christiansen, who started out in the wholesale hardware business for the New York-based Masbeck Hardware Co., first moved to the area to be closer to a sales territory that included what was then Brown's Hardware.

"I used to sell hardware to this store before we bought it," he said, sitting behind the counter during his last week on the job 26 years later.

He chalked up the decision to take over the business back then to the simple fact that "it was time to get into retail."

Nancy Christiansen put it this way: "It was that insanity that tells you, 'Oh, you can do this on your own. You don't have to work for someone else.'"

Now, Talerico ascribes a similar sentiment to her father, Richard, who she said works a "day job" in Cheshire at an energy company. She credits him with putting the family on the path to business ownership only a few months ago. That's when he called her in Georgia, where she was working as a server at Sea Island Resort, to let her know he was looking to buy a hardware store.

"Truthfully, I thought he was crazy," she said.

Then he called again before he closed the deal in Old Lyme to ask her if she wanted to come up to run the store. So she did.

Nancy Christiansen said a background in the restaurant industry gives Jessica Talerico valuable skills she can use at the hardware store.

"She's been in hospitality, so she knows what customer service is," Nancy Christiansen said. "And that's what a small business is: how you interact with that person the minute they walk in the door. That's what brings them back the next time."

Jessica Talerico owns 51% of the company. Her brother, Jonathan, whom she described as a silent partner, owns 25%. Richard, of New Britain, owns the remainder.

"This is his fun job on the side," she said of her father. "It's always been something that he wanted to do just because he loves it."

They're planning to host a "Coffee with a Handyman" event every third Saturday so Richard Talerico , and perhaps representatives of other trades, can answer people's questions.

"Maybe they're redoing their house or their rental cottage and they're not exactly sure how to do something. It'll just be kind of a fun way to bring people in and get to know us, and us get to know them," Jessica Talerico said.

For the Christiansens, building those relationship with customers is one of the things they will miss most about owning a small business in Old Lyme.

"Most of our customers have turned into friends," Bill Christiansen said. "It was always fun coming to work."

Among those who stopped in during the week between Christmas and New Year's to say goodbye to the Christiansens was the Rev. Gregoire Fluet, a chaplain at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y.

Fluet, boisterous in his clerical collar, told Jessica Talerico he was there to see Bill.

"He needs a visit from a priest," he said, loud enough that Bill Christiansen could hear in the back of the store. "He needs a priest if anybody needs a priest!"

After Fluet wished his friend well, he told The Day he'd been a customer for 20 years.

"His prices are very competitive, but it's more than that," he said. "You could walk in here and say 'I need a thing' — you don't even have to know what the thing is called — and he'd figure it out and find it for you. And he'd usually have it."

On his way out the door, the priest advised Bill Christiansen to behave himself.

"I'm not going to," Bill shouted back.

Jessica Talerico described that sort of customer interaction as "a big thing" for her. "I love smaller towns like this because you really start to get to know people," she said. "You start to know the community and they become like family, just like Bill and Nancy were saying."

The store is open seven days a week, with a more formal opening event to be held sometime in March. In the meantime, Jessica Talerico is moving the lawn and garden area to the back of the store and thinking about how to make it as welcoming as possible.

She envisions hardwood floors and a tin ceiling to evoke that "old-time hardware store" feel in a place where everybody knows everybody.

"If you go into Lowe's and Home Depot, that's great. But they don't know your first name. They don't know anything about you," she said. "It's not that personalized experience."


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