A one-time law student and government official in Disaster Recovery, Amanda Plunkett isn’t immediately what springs to mind when you imagine small-town hardware retailers. Although retail runs deep in her blood.
Amanda is a third-generation member of Beck Paint and Hardware in “Cincy” – Cincinnati, Ohio. Stan and Hilda Beck, Amanda’s grandparents, bought the Walnut Hills hardware store in 1959. The late-nineteenth-century building operated as a hardware store since the 1920s. Now part of the ‘Do it Best’ franchise, the family has two stores in Walnut Hills and Goshen, of the greater Cincinnati area, one nestled in the heart of the city and the other located more rurally, which Amanda’s brother manages.
A strong narrative of post World II life in the ‘40s and ‘50s saw veterans earning government incentives to build their own houses, start their own businesses – and ultimately a new life.
Cincinnati felt the boom in its bones, with a surge in housing construction accommodating veterans and their families. With the construction industry on a particular rise, it’s no wonder Stan Beck saw huge potential in hardware. Beck Paint and Hardware was born.
60 years later, customers are still walking through its doors – and the store is such an institution that it now has its own day on the 5th of October.
Of course, there is something very special about a family that comes together to make a business work. When your bread and butter come from your business, it follows you through life – and Amanda is the epitome of that.
Living and breathing “the store”
Talking to Amanda about her journey from a thriving law career back to the store unboxed a dialogue about the importance of the prosperity of local retail for society. For Amanda, local stores and the neighborhood are one and the same. Our conversation, however, begins with her earliest memories of the store.
“Growing up in the family business you’re always connected to it because you’re talking about it as a family all the time,” Amanda says. “You’re talking about it at the dinner table or you’re talking about it on the way to a soccer game.”
You live and breath it.
“The store” has been on Amanda’s radar as far back as she can remember. She recalls thundering down the store’s aisles on carts with her brother and sister after closing time, screaming at the top of their lungs. The store looked different with the lights off: spooky in the long shadows and sudden silence.
“I started working here… well, how mom tells it when I was a couple of weeks old,” Amanda says. “My mom would pay the bills and do all sorts of other things and I would come in with her. My brother and sister would come in too. But I started working here in high school.”
Her Dad (also called Stan) worked in the store from childhood too. “My Dad started working here, gosh, around 10,” she says. Her parents were in the process of buying the store from her grandparents when she was born.
In a family business, it’s no surprise that it’s all hands on deck. Everyone can contribute something; you’re never too young to learn that lesson.
As a child, Amanda “would sweep floors, clean shelves,” she laughs. “I still do these things actually.”
In a small family business where kids are involved, an elephant in the room often starts to grow. Does the next generation want to take on the family business too?
Spreading her legal eagle wings
Amanda’s parents always encouraged her to spread her wings: they didn’t expect any of their kids to run the store for them.
“My Dad didn’t want any of us to feel pressure to be involved,” she says. “He loves it [the store], but he had other dreams that didn’t necessarily work out.”
Her Dad first became involved in the family business when his Dad, Stan, got sick and he returned home to help his father. She explains, “it worked out because my Dad loves the store more than anything, but he always wanted his kids to have a choice.”
When it came to senior year of high school, like lots of teenagers, Amanda had to make choices about her future. It wasn’t too difficult at the time. She knew that she wanted to get out of Cincinnati: “I don’t really remember what I wanted to do after high school. It was just go, leave and figure it out. I really wanted to go away for school to somewhere different with different people.”
Amanda went on to study history at university but decided to leave her history studies after college. As much as she loved her degree, she laughs, “it’s not very useful unless you do further study.” She took a year after college to think about what she wanted to do next. During this time, she moved back home and worked in the store.
As a fresh graduate leaving the college bubble, she recalls thinking, “oh, this is what grownups do. They go to work every day. They have good days and bad days… that was important to realize.”
Amanda ultimately decided to go back to school, attending Cincinnati Law, Ohio’s oldest law school. At the time, Amanda and her Dad shared the same morning routine so he would drop her to school in the mornings and pick her up in the afternoon.
The commute between Cincinnati Law and the store is a mere six minutes; the memories of those short drives will always be special to Amanda.
After law school, the familiarity of the store was a welcome break. “Law school was stressful and intense but I was happy when I was here [in the store],” she says. “I would sit out on my bench and I would talk to customers when I’d run the register.”
For Amanda, her love for customers and talking to people who come in-store is paramount: “I was always around people that I liked. I’ve always felt really comfortable in the store. There are so many nice customers there.”
After law school, she wanted a new challenge, a new boss and an experience with no family connections.
“I didn’t want to always be working for Dad and thinking that’s all I have experienced. I wanted to have other bosses. Your Dad will love you no matter what and think well of you. I wanted to go out to do something else and find something that I could excel in,” she explains.
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy as Amanda quickly excelled. Post-graduation, Amanda gained a spot on the prestigious Presidential Management Fellows. “They were looking for some younger blood in the government; it’s a neat program,” Amanda says.
A move to Washington DC followed.
Amanda never saw herself working in government per se, especially growing up in a small business. However, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up. Her first stint was in HUD’s (Housing and Urban Development) finance department, but she wasn’t loving it.
A friend in the office who ran the Disaster Recovery Division noticed that Amanda wasn’t the happiest in HUD, so she poached her to work for her division. Amanda didn’t know much about the Disaster Recovery Division, but the challenged seemed just right.
When there is a big disaster in America, congress allocates a certain amount of money to this particular division, which in turn helps communities to recover by allocating funds accordingly through working with government and State.
Amanda spent seven years in this division, traveling all over the country, working with many different people, and doing important policy work.
A month before Amanda first moved to Washington DC, she met her now-husband. They kept dating after she moved and eventually got married. Soon, they decided they wanted to start a family. It wasn’t easy getting pregnant for the couple, so when they got the news that they were expecting a baby girl, they were over the moon.
Looking back, she says, “I didn’t know at that time whether I would stay with my career or not, and then about a minute after I met my little girl, I knew I couldn’t just drop her off in the morning and be gone.”
While some people work in high-pressure law careers with help from their families, Amanda didn’t want to land that responsibility on hers as they are very busy people. “I didn’t feel like it was their job. I talked to my parents before I left my law career and they said ‘there’s always room for you here [at the store].’”
Parents all over the U.S. are faced with tough decisions when it comes to having a family. Do they leave their job? Put their kids in daycare?
Does the ‘best of both worlds’, they may wonder, even exist?
There is no right or wrong path, but as Amanda learned, you’ve got to do what’s best for you. However, the “what ifs” are inevitable.
“No matter what path you go down, you always have those ‘what if’ questions,” Amanda says. “You always feel a ping inside of you wondering if you did the right thing. I think I always will. By the same token, I can’t look at my kids and think of just dropping them off to daycare all day.”
Spending time with her kids and savoring the fleeting moments of childhood is priceless for Amanda, especially as it allows her so much time with her kids.
Three generations under one roof
Amanda and her husband went on to have two more kids – little boys this time – and now three generations are together in Beck Paint and Hardware. Amanda’s eldest is currently learning how to spell, and out of nowhere she made a poster that says “I love the store.”
Amanda’s Dad was so moved that he, “pinned it up on his cork board that he’s had for 35 years. Only things that he truly cares about are pinned there.”
Looking at the store through the eyes of a parent has given her a new perspective: she looks at how the store has shaped her, her siblings, and her kids as people. “As the kids get a little older, it’s been a big thing for me seeing our kids interacting with customers and having to learn how to talk to people.”
Amanda’s two eldest went through a shy phase, like lots of little kids. Learning how to talk to customers and deal with difficult situations is a big plus point of working in retail and building a certain amount of confidence.
“I think a lot of kids go through that but I think you build a certain amount of confidence when you learn how to talk to others and deal with different situations,” Amanda says. It’s a skill set that particularly stood to Amanda’s sister, who is a pediatrician in Texas.
When she was going to med school, one of her teachers said, “you’ve got such a way with patients, what have you done?” Her sister jokingly replied, “Oh, I just grew up working in a hardware store.”
“Well, that’s it,” her teacher said.
For Amanda, “learning how to help people, being patient, listening to them, and understanding what they want and need are all big lessons. It’s never too early to learn that. Life can be hard and there are people who won’t like you…”
It’s like a repeat of history watching her kids learning the same life lessons in the same store she did.
Amanda jokes there’s a debate in her family regarding the well-told retail expression “the customer is always right.” She explains that “it’s a tough thing sometimes.”
In her diplomatic view, the customer is not always right, but she wants them to leave the store feeling good and as if she’s helped them as much as possible.
It was important, always, for Amanda to understand how vital it is for a business to work, though she looks at it differently now that she’s a parent. “Work has to be a priority running a small business. If you don’t have a house, your kids don’t have a safe place to sleep at night.”
Responsibility is unavoidable as a business owner. Whether you want it or not – it’s there.
“Even if we’re closed, if there is a customer in the parking lot, we’d better serve that customer.”
More than a store that sells stuff…
It’s this belief in superior customer service that has earned Beck Paint and Hardware its mantle as the second oldest store on its street in Walnut Hills.
At this stage, the stores on the street and their owners are all friends too. Many of the customers have shopped there since Amanda was a child. “They like to remind me how old I am,” she laughs.
The rise of big-box stores and online retailers has made it tough for local hardware stores. When asked if she’s worried about the competition, she says that her Dad says, “the big boxes should push us to do better. We’re here to stay.”
It all comes back to the family name and reputation, which literally hangs on the door – and which ensures that customer happiness is the family’s business. It’s the very reason that the Board of County Commissioners Hamilton declared the 5th of October ‘Beck Paint and Hardware Day’ as it, “has stood the test of time and continues to thrive and grow to better serve its customers.”
Amanda didn’t bring up this prestigious award in the interview, but it’s easy to see why Beck Paint and Hardware won.
“Beck is so much more than a store that sells stuff,” Amanda says. “Just the memories that are here and the people that are here, it’s just a special place…to us at least.”
While working in a retail store might not be as “glamorous” as a law career, Amanda’s life has become richer since returning to Beck Paint and Hardware. Spending time in the store with the people she loves most means her life is rich with potential.
It’s simple: Amanda knows she’s had a good day at work when it’s just her in the store and the doors are closed. She takes a moment to be thankful for all of this. She says, “it’s not much, it’s not fancy but it’s provided a good life for all of us.”
Of course, it really hits home when she takes off her ‘retailer hard hat’ to spend time with her kids.
“I look at them now and think what a special brief moment in time this has been,” she says. “I can work more someday if I chose to. But, I know my kids inside out. If I want to take a moment to sit on the floor and look at my baby’s toes – I can do that. Where else can you do that besides your family’s business? For any other job in the world, I wouldn’t change this.”