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Holtje's Fort Lee Hardware Bids Adieu

After 67 years, the last of the old guard Main Street merchants will soon be closed for good.

Throughout the years, Main Street has undergone many changes, but arguably, none as radical as this. On March 7, brothers Terry and Bruce Holtje will close their door one final time--the last of the familiar mom-and-pop stores to vacate the western boundary of lower Main Street.

Holtje's was the last of the neighborhood places where people could stop in just to catch up on what's going on in town. The last of the neighborhood places where pictures of local legends hang prominently behind the counter. The last of the neighborhood places where the owners knew both your father and mother, and in many cases--even your grandparents.

"I told my wife, after 60 years of working in this store, I'm taking the next two months off," Terry Holtje said.

Fort Lee Hardware, founded by Holtje's father, Harry, has been a staple on Main Street for 67 years. The first job for so many young men in town, many of whom called Fort Lee Hardware their launching pad to becoming a Fort Lee cop.

"That is true," Holtje contemplated, as if considering that fact for the first time. "So many boys that worked here did go on to join the police force."

He followed that thought with, "Every kid that ever worked here was also a volunteer fireman," Holtje said. "We always let them leave the store to go to fires--in fact, we all left the store to go to the fires."

The Holtje brothers are also lifelong active members of Fort Lee Fire Co. 1 on lower Main Street.

Fort Lee Hardware is a family business in every sense of the word. Terry and Bruce's father, Harry Holtje, hung his shingle on Main Street in 1947, after working for 20 years at Palisades Park Lumber. According to Terry, the original store was a few doors down in what is now the right side of Biaggio's restaurant. Terry has worked at the store for 60 years, while his brother Bruce has worked here for 57 years.

According to Terry, a few years after his father first opened, he decided to move to a bigger building--the store's current location--and in 1973, he expanded it.

"At the time, my father hired Joe Mariano, a local contractor, to do the brick work on the building expansion," Holtje said. "And his two helpers were these young guys--Rosario and Charlie Luppino," Holtje recalls with a smile.  (The Luppino brothers went on to build a successful family-owned company that includes construction, development, and building management.)   

Holtje said that when the Luppino brothers were first starting out, his father gave them a credit account so that they could get the supplies they needed and build their company.

"Charlie and Rosario never forgot that," Holtje said. "As the Luppino's grew their company, they never forgot my dad. They always came to us for anything they needed, and we were always grateful to them for that."

After the expansion, Holtje said that business doubled in the first year and kept going many years after that. Until the business changed.

"It wasn't just the Home Depots," Holtje said, "It used to be that if you needed a flashlight you came to the hardware store to get it. Now, you can get a flashlight at a gas station convenience store, a food store, CVS, almost anywhere."

He also said that the increase in apartment dwelling over the course of the last 30 years, coupled with the increased use of landscapers, has hurt their business tremendously.

"The landscapers go to the places where they can get the cheapest price," Holtje said.

Aside from the memories of the people who used to frequent the store, the walls of Fort Lee Hardware hold their own memories. Just look at the walls strewn with old pictures, memorabilia, plaques and you'll see the history of a once small town anchored by a bridge.

Terry recalls the times that reputed mob boss, Albert Anastasia, came into the shop to talk to his father.

"He always liked to stand right in front of the big front window," Holtje recalled. "And my dad would always try to gently move him away from it...just in case," he laughed.

Holtje said that when he was a young kid, his father sent him and his brother to deliver peat moss to the gardener at Anastasia's house.

"Anastasia happened to be there when we arrived," Holtje said. "The bill was for $14, but he gave me $20 and said, 'keep the change, kid.'"

"My brother ripped the $20 from my hand and Anastasia just looked at him and said, 'I told the kid to keep the $20, not you,'" Holtje laughs.

Buddy Hackett was also a staple in Holtje Hardware. Hackett, who took over the Anastasia estate in Fort Lee, came into the store with a cylinder from a lock he had tried to take apart and fix.

"The cylinder was wrapped in a napkin to hold all the little pieces," Holtje said. "He asked me what I could do with it and I just took it and threw it into the garbage can. Boy, did he laugh!" Holtje recalled.

Aside from the memories of the people who frequented the store, the building also holds memories of its own. Past the aisles of paint, behind the rows of plumbing supplies and lightbulbs, exists a maze of storage rooms and attics dating to the 1800's.

Stories abound as to what secrets these rooms, whose gaslights are still visible, once held. A house of ill-repute? Speak-easy? Gambling hall? Walking through the now skeletal rooms, thick with the dust of ages, it's easy to imagine all of those things here--and a part of you wishes the legends to be true for they fit well within the character of the space.

There's even the remains of a pigeon coop still standing upstairs. The wall of one room is adorned with pin-up girls from the 1950's, another has the name "Brenda" written on it with the year 1957 engraved next to it, while another room contains graffiti and a Playboy Magazine from the 1970's. 

The basement holds the original Fort Lee Hardware sign that hung on Main Street, the original bell from School 2, a sign from an old movie studio and relics from another time.

But now the brothers say the time is right for them to move on. 

"Since 9-11, business has been off about 70 percent," Holtje said. "We still have our loyal customers, but they're a dying breed." 

Fort Lee Hardware is currently running a sale to move as much of their inventory as they can. According to the brothers, everything is going. And what doesn't go will be auctioned off by the store on March 7.

"I've been working here since I was 12," Holtje said. "That's a long time. Now it's time to live my life--and I'm looking forward to it."

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PAT KINNEY February 22, 2013 at 01:05 PM
"Harry the Hardware," is what my family called the store and all the Holtjes who worked there! We lived on Hoym Street, just behind the store. I remember the expansion at the corner of Main and Gerome. Now in Leonia, I am a block from Moore's Hardware, a very similar and (I hope) not a dying breed of unofficial town center. Main Street will never look the same! Thank you Fort Lee Patch!
PAT KINNEY February 22, 2013 at 01:06 PM
Thank you, Fort Lee Patch!
Kathy Lee February 22, 2013 at 01:59 PM
Great story!!!! Really enjoyed reading a bit of Fort Lee history! All the best to you Holtje!!!
susan boni February 22, 2013 at 02:54 PM
Sorry to see you go.I remember your Dad fondly.I used to live on Main Street up above where The Cafe LeMAison is at 140 Main Street when I first opened Frames of Mine at 144 Main Street 35 years ago,We are now at 100 Main Street.I do remember going there on Mondays to shop for my apartment when there was Scweitzers,you and the Butcher,all of the stores needed to sustain a town.Wishing you guys much HAPPINESS and HEALTH in your next journey in life,ENJOY!!!!come back to go to the new Clams Casino thats opening soon!!!!Thanks for all your help to me when I was just starting in town,I will always remember those visits,Susan Boni
Cathie Kalipetis-Stone February 22, 2013 at 03:29 PM
I am so sorry and saddened that you guys are closing. I remember all the help that you gave to my family in time of need--their names were George and Evie Kalipetis.. Thank You Thank You!!! Health and Happiness to your families. <3 <3
carol simon February 22, 2013 at 06:05 PM
Awe..my favorite store in Fort Lee! Best of luck!
Howard Berner February 22, 2013 at 06:38 PM
I have not lived in Fort Lee for over 20 years, but I usually ended up in Fort Lee Hardware store on most Saturdays to complete my honey-do list. I haven't been there in years, but I will be sorry to see it go.
Fort Lee Truth February 22, 2013 at 06:49 PM
Wow, another piece of Fort Lee history vanishing. Sorry to hear. Good luck to the family.
Judith Holtje DeRaad February 22, 2013 at 06:55 PM
So happy that my cousins will transition into retirement. Sad to see the hardware store close. I have tons of memories from my childhood as well.
Carole Hoebel Perfetti February 22, 2013 at 11:49 PM
Wow - how sad to see this mainstay leave! I can sure relate to Terry's stories though. We all worked in the family business down the street, Hoebel Florist, from a young age too. Congrats on serving the community all these years. Enjoy your retirement. Carole Hoebel Perfetti
Marge Teilhaber February 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM
Aw, really sorry to hear this. Whenever I needed a hardware store item, you're the only place I went. Will miss your presence. Lots of good luck. Can't someone buy you and carry on??!!!
Mary Scollan Knesel February 23, 2013 at 12:53 AM
Great story! I grew up on Gerome Avenue and remember the hardware store and wish the Holtje's get to retire. Mary Scollan Knesel
Michael Feiler February 23, 2013 at 01:40 AM
Hey Terry and Bruce, good luck to both of you. Speaking from experience, you may be retiring and leaving the store, but the memories and the people who you serviced all of these years will always be with you and I hope that everyone will miss you and your family's store. Enjoy yourselves and stay well.
Thomas A Bennett February 23, 2013 at 01:02 PM
Terry, Bruce, both of you served your community in so many ways that they would never be able to thank you for your service and dedication. Both of you have a well deserved down time coming. I do wish you nothing but the best of luck for your future, peace.
Cathie Kalipetis-Stone February 23, 2013 at 09:04 PM
Michael I remember your parents well--I drove by the store many times to show my kid before it was torn down--I wanted them to see what kind of place that I grew up in and how important Atlas 5 & 10 was to Fort Lee--I miss it!! Hope all is well with you and your family.
Judy February 24, 2013 at 01:22 PM
Weren't awnings, brick sidewalks and fancy light poles supposed to enhance business on Main Street? I know if I need a flashlight the parking is free almost anyplace but Main Street, but if I had a quarter for the meter handy I would try and find parking there just to experience the unique ambiance of Holtje's (and then probably end up at CVS, A&P or Walgreens when there was no parking space available). Sorry to see Terry and Bruce pack it in, wishing them happiness in their next endeavor.
Angela Johnson February 25, 2013 at 07:48 PM
The hardware store will definitely be missed. Good article.
Stefan Bailis March 04, 2013 at 04:55 AM
To Terry, Bruce, your wives, and to the memory of your late, great father, Harry: I will always treasure my memories of visits to the store--going back to January 1966. Best wishes in retirement!
Robyn Nadel March 05, 2013 at 02:04 PM
The Holtje's footprints will be on Main Street always. Wishing you all good health, happiness, time to pursue your dreams and the best of everything always. Thank you for years of great service, your kindness, humor, and for the opportunity to tell one terrific business and personal story of the Holtje family for Patch.com. Peace :)

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