WINCHESTER — A Bible verse painted on the mural on the side of Solenberger’s True Value Hardware reads, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” The Golden Rule, as it has become known, is there for a reason — it’s a guiding force for the way the Solenberger family does business.
“I think that’s our philosophy,” Patti Solenberger. “We want to treat people in a way that we would like to be treated, if we were in the same situation. That’s something that is a core value to us.”
From offering exceptional customer service, to hosting events to benefit local organizations, to giving donations for charitable auctions, to lending meeting space for nonprofits, the couple and their family business — now in its 131st year — are well-regarded around town.
“There is that intrinsic motivation for caring for people. It’s something I see less and less of, and it makes me sad,” said Patti.
“When my kids were young they had a book, ‘If Everybody Did,’ I always think about it. It basically showed very small actions — if everybody picked up a piece of paper, how everything would look, all pristine and nice. But what if everybody didn’t? So there’s a role for each of us to play, and it might be really, really small, but if everybody doesn’t fulfill their role, then it affects the quality of life for everyone. That’s something we try to model, because we want our kids to be that way, we want our employees to be like that, we want them to care. If we can affect our community in a positive way, even if it’s little, it’s better than if we were never here, and never did this.”
A hometown business
In an age when so much can be done impersonally from home — opening a computer, clicking on what you want to buy, never having to interact with a store owner or sales associate — having personal connections to their customers and community is something John and Patti place the utmost importance on.
“When you think about it, your community is only as strong as the relationships in it. It used to be there were the places of worship, the retail, your schools — those were the primary places that people interacted with one another. They build their communities on that,” she said.
“Our hope is to continue that here, and to have a place where people can come. If they have a loved one die, we can hug them and say we’re sorry about that. You’re not going to get that from the Amazon online call person. They’re not going to know.”
Something else you won’t get from an online website is the depth of knowledge and experience that sets apart the couple’s store from other competitors. Their staff — 44 total, including family — have been with the store from eight years to 42 years.
Patti shared a story about how one of their employees helped a customer with a plumbing project. When the customer expressed doubt about their own do-it-yourself ability, the employee gave the customer his cell phone number and told him to send him a photo if they got stuck and that he would call or text him how to solve the problem.
“We do that all day long. I think with our customers, it’s a connection. It forms a connection so the next time they have another project, they come here. People are so capable, but they sometimes don’t have the confidence to do the things they can do,” Patti said.
“The retail environment is challenging, it’s only going to continue to be challenging. But instead of giving into that, our desire is to inform people and say we’re here. We’re here for you.”
In addition to helping customers, the couple helps the community through their business by hosting events where the proceeds benefit a local organization: a community yard sale in the spring and a car show in the fall. They invite the beneficiary to come to the event and set up a booth, so that attendees can learn more about the organization.
“A lot of people will be like, WATTS, what is WATTs? Then you get the opportunity to say it’s our local homeless shelter in the winter,” said Patti.
“So we can then educate them about the charity. We have the nonprofit come in, they have a table set up that day, they do interactive things.”
This spring, the community yard sale benefited WATTS, and they were able to present a check for $4,100 to the organization.
The Solenbergers are approached by local nonprofits of all sizes for donations for their fundraisers. They also offer their conference room inside the store as a free space for local organizations to meet that may not have such a space. Both John and Patti serve on local boards — Patti is on the boards of the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber and WATTS, and John is a past board member of the Red Cross.
Giving back to the community is something ingrained; it’s something that the Solenberger family has always done.
“Some of it’s just our history, wanting to continue our legacy of what we’ve done so far,” said John.
Looking to the future
As a business that is in its fourth generation of ownership, John and Patti have their eye to the future.
“We want to continue to build on our personal involvement in the community. Our goal is not just to stay in business to make a profit, but we have a family of employees here,” said Patti.
“We want to sustain this for them, we want them to retire from here. So that is a big part of our motivation. And we want it to be something that takes care of them.”
They are also looking ahead to the fifth generation of hardware store owners — their children.
“For our children, who we now have involved in the business, we want them to be able to continue it on so it’s a source of livelihood for them, and whomever God brings into their lives to employ. We are motivated to continue this on,” said Patti.
“It’s a stewardship,” said John.
Patti agreed. “Yes, we are managing something to pass on. It’s not something that we feel like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna grab all we can get and then leave it.’ We talk about this as a family, because we’ve had to make decisions to remain profitable, that are hard decisions but we don’t want this to go by the wayside — there are 44 people here that it would affect adversely. So our passion is to keep it going, keep it going.”
“Our hope is that the community will support us in that as well. Because it’s going to take that. We’re going to have people who say I believe in this too, I’m going to shop local because I believe it’s important to my community.”
Mover & Shaker
Like the other Mover and Shaker honorees, John and Patti were surprised to get our phone call informing them that they had been nominated.
To them, a mover and shaker is someone who cares about the community.
“It’s someone who cares, someone who is genuinely interested in helping other people, and to develop themselves and their community and business. I don’t consider myself a mover and a shaker, I just do what I do,” said John.
“Somebody who is just passionate about their community and cares enough to do what needs to be done to make it better,” she said.
“We’re going to leave this to our kids. But the community that they’re in, if it’s not strong, they’re not going to have the quality of life that we’ve known. We want that for Winchester and Frederick County, so it’s important to us.”