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."