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CONNECTIONS: Baldwin’s in West Stockbridge marches on

The Civil War had created pent-up demand for goods, and there was Baldwin’s. Folks all over the North and South were glad to see the war ending and new businesses starting up.

It was July 1864. The Civil War was three years and three months old. President Abraham Lincoln was running for a second term. In New York state, they built a suspension bridge over Niagara Falls and called it an engineering miracle. In New York City, “Alladin” was on Broadway, and Stephen Foster published his last song before he died, “Beautiful Dreamer.” In West Stockbridge, Arthur W. Baldwin opened a hardware store.

Almost 30 years earlier, in 1838, the first railroad train pulled into Berkshire County—not into bigger Pittsfield or swankier Lenox. The first train in Berkshire County ran from Hudson, N.Y. to West Stockbridge.

The train was a critical economic link. Towns on the new rail line flourished, while the towns the train bypassed did not. Trains delivered passengers in and out of West Stockbridge just as it delivered valuable West Stockbridge iron ore and marble to markets throughout the eastern United States and brought shiny, new products into Baldwin’s.

You can still pop into the train station, No. Six Depot, for a cup of coffee. If you do, glance across the street and there is the Arthur W. Baldwin Hardware Store—now as it always has been.

There were no 18 wheelers 160 years ago, but there were 20-mule teams. No transportation was fueled by expensive gasoline, but the animals doing the transporting were expensive to feed, water, and keep. There was no internet, but word got around. The Civil War had created pent-up demand, and there was Baldwin’s. Folks all over the North and South were glad to see the war ending and new businesses starting up.

Baldwin’s carried plenty of animal feed and coal, which they don’t anymore. We have moved on. Yet, many of the products are the same then and now: a paint brush, pick axe, and pliers. The current owner, however, Henry Baldwin, is under pressure that his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were not. Out on the highway are the big box stores, and right at home is the internet. Both compete to bring the same products at a cheaper price. Both offer a wide variety and quick delivery. Many other businesses closed, unable to withstand the headwinds of change. Yet, Baldwin’s marches on—from 160 years old to 161. What’s the secret? Comity, community, and plain old common sense

A couple of big, heavy boxes were delivered to the end of a street in West Stockbridge. The sides of the boxes were emblazoned with the letters of an internet giant. Now how was the not-so-young purchaser supposed to get those boxes down the road, up the driveway, and into his house? Having accomplished that, who would assemble all those pieces? Who would make all those flat pieces look like the three-dimensional object in the picture on the web? Order from Baldwin’s and they will. They assemble and deliver door to door. Sure, it makes sense, but there is more to it than that; it is common sense and also caring.

Other folks have written about Baldwin’s over the years. They searched for ways to capture what was special about the store in the center of the village. They called it “the essence of the village” or described it as “more than a store.” No argument. However, it doesn’t quite capture the gestalt—you know, when the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

Baldwin’s has occupied the same location for generations. Date unknown. Photo courtesy of Henry Baldwin.

Baldwin’s has a location, the same location for four generations. Inside, it has stuff. It has a long history with ownership in one family. Those are its parts, and like an car, the parts of the car don’t have the same value as when the parts are put together and the driver sticks the key in the ignition. Same with Baldwin’s.

Lonely? Out of touch? Looking for companionship or a connection? Drop in Baldwin’s. Folks are talking in the aisles, sharing the latest news, and saying “hi” to everyone they pass. Why? Feels right; it is part of the Baldwin experience.

Henry tells everyone he fell into Baldwin’s as the new owner. He was the last of the six children. He was the last of the owners named Arthur to stand at the cash register. Henry’s father was tired. None of the other children wanted to run the store. So, there was Henry. He offered to quit college and step in. His father, a wise and college-educated man, said absolutely not. So, Henry finished college in Boston, as his father had done, and came home to West Stockbridge and the store.

What is the extra whatever that makes the whole of Baldwin’s bigger than its parts? It is the Baldwins. For generations, as Henry explains, to the Baldwins, behind a $1,000 sale or a 10 cent screw, is a customer. You see, for the Baldwins, the customers matter. They are friends and neighbors and family, and they have been for 160 years. Drop on by; the door is open, and there is warmth inside.


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