Photo: Wanda Shepherd, owner for the past quarter century of Winters Hardware & Plumbing in Cushing Square
It would be using an old cliché to say that walking into Winters Hardware & Plumbing at 84 Trapelo Rd. in Cushing Square is stepping back in time. Unless it is.
Located on the first floor in a block of retail next to a gas station, the store is narrow, with just enough space to cram just about everything you’d need to repair, paint over, and
You’ll be greeted – if you’re lucky – by the owner’s pups while she’s repairing a light bulb socket for a customer, she’s known around town for 50 years. Screws, hinges, nuts, and bolts are located in ancient card catalog cabinets, paints are in the room to the left. Plumbing in the rear, electrical and plumbing supplies closer to the front desk, and you can get a new set of keys, your screen door repaired and even get that small engine that runs the refrigerator up and going. All that’s missing from this nostalgic scene is a young Mickey Rooney helping customers in black and white.
For nearly a century, Belmont came to the little store – about half the square footage of an aisle in one of the “home improvement” goliaths – with the squeaking floor and the portrait of George Washington overlooking the shop (salvaged from the Payson Park school) for anything and everything they’d need to keep their houses .
But the days of securing as the future is too bleak for the shop, said Wanda Shepherd, the fifth-generation Belmontian who has owned, managed, and has been the full-time staff for the past 27 years since she bought the store lock, stock, and barrel from the Winters’ family.
“We’re struggling so hard,” said Shepherd, in a story that is only too familiar for the dwindling number of mom-and-pop shops in the US. The numbers simply don’t add up any longer as competition from national stores and the reliance on replace rather than repair has taken cash out of her till year after year.
“Everything’s made to throw away. You know, it’s sad. And young people don’t know how to fix things,” lamented Shepherd.
As the years went by, so did more and more of Winters’ best customers. “Everybody’s passed away who were the regular customers,” said Shepherd.
If sales doesn’t show even a slight increase in the next weeks, “I’ll be closing for good in August or September.” Shepherd would like to keep the store open until the New Year’s when the business reaches its centennial.
“That would be a worthy milestone to reach. I just need a little increased activity to get me through,” said Shepherd.
According to Shepherd, when the Winters family purchased the property in 1924, the initial business at the location was a Hudson car dealership. A year later, the family started a plumbing shop, and by 1926 the hardware store came about. From its prime location – across the street from the Woolworth Five and Ten – at the crossroads of Common and Trapelo, business was good as homeowners would crowd the store on Saturday in the late 70s.
“It always made money,” said Shepherd, even when she bought it “just when Home Depot came into Watertown.” Despite the Vishnu of Main Street stores casting a shadow over her single location operation, “the business was good because people still supported me. The old timers were still around; they fix their own things.”
“But now … ,” Shepherd said, looking down at her dogs laying on the floor. “I don’t want to leave. I’ve been here for 27 years.”
There’s a bitter taste in Shepherd’s mouth when she talks about ‘what ifs”: if there had not been a pandemic, and how the town would rather use the millions in American Rescue Plan funds on schools and free cash rather than the small businesses in town.
“Yeah, they never gave us anything. They never even told us there was any money,” she said.
Nor is she happy with a big-time Belmont developer – think of the Boston skyline near the harbor – who has been “snooping” around throwing out big proposed payouts to business owners and landlords as he envisions a “phase two” of a Cushing Square build-out.
[Editor’s note: As part of the Cushing Village (now rebranded as the Bradford) development, the town created an overlay district encompassing the square that allows commercial/retail space to be developed of greater height, density, and massing than under the town’s code.]
“What’s over there is going to be put over here,” Shepherd said, pointing to the Bradford.
As for Shepherd, she’ll still be around town when she bolts the front door for the final time because, as she said, there are seniors she knows who will need assistance in their day-to-day life.
“I’ll help them,” Shepherd said. “I guess there are a lot of people that live in houses and can’t mow the lawn. They can’t shovel. So I’ll be that person that will help.”