TUNKHANNOCK – It was the summer of 1971 when Charlie Kraynack entered Gay's True Value Hardware Store to buy a swimming pool kit to replace chemicals in an old kit that had dried up. That's when he met George Gay.
"Mr. Gay said, ‘Oh, don't spend all that money for a whole new kit. I can order you the refills,' " Kraynack said.
Gay took a small scrap of paper from his shirt pocket and scribbled a note. Kraynack and his daughter followed him to the back of the store, where Gay opened a footlocker-sized chest containing a big pile of similar notes.
"He tossed in our note, turned to us and said, ‘We will call you when it comes in.' Sure enough, in about a week's time, we got a call from Gay's." The chemicals were in and the message left said they would be on the steps of the store for Kraynack to pick up.
"Now that's service," Kraynack said.
That was 41 years ago – George "Papa" Gay died in 2004.
The store, now in its 100th year of operation, is run by Papa's two sons – Doug, 69, and Dave, 65.
Despite the legacy, the future of Gay's is uncertain.
CVS Pharmacy Co. wants to buy the property and build a new store.
If the negotiations are resolved and CVS takes ownership of the property, Dave will retire and travel, Doug said.
But Doug Gay – who has a son, Rick, at the business and another, Dan, who will return to work there soon -- wants to reopen at a new location out of the flood plain.
And the 20-plus employees of Gay's and just about everybody in the greater Tunkhannock area feel the hardware store – where everybody knows your name and sells everything anybody would ever need – must stay open somewhere.
The CVS purchase of the site and building hasn't been the only challenge to the Gay's tradition. In September 2011, flooding caused by Tropical Storm Lee inundated the hardware store, which is next to the Susquehanna River. Gay's had been damaged by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, but the water was higher in 2011.
After the water receded from Bridge Street volunteers wasted no time removing merchandise and flotsam from the front of Gay's True Value. The flood waters were about 10 feet high in the store, one volunteer said during the clean-up in 2011. Some feared the store would not reopen.
Doug Gay said a lot of merchandise was lost. "We can't take another one," he said. "Wherever we end up, it will be out of the flood plain."
But moving isn't something Doug and Dave and the employees are looking forward to. "It's breaking our hearts," Doug said. "There's a lot of our blood, sweat and tears in this place."
Most of the employees have logged decades of service at Gay's.
Lynn Brooks has been there for 42 years in the parts department.
Howard Batron has managed the tool and hardware department for 32 years.
Carol Grimes has 30 years at the checkout counter.
Lori Clark has been there 20 years.
Glenda Chapin and Carol Vogrin each have 13 years at the store.
Mary Ann "Bucky" Morgan has been a cashier/bookkeeper for 40 years. She was very close to "Papa" Gay and Ruth "Momma" Gay. "Momma would come in every Wednesday and work with us at checkout," she said. "We all grew up together here – we're family."
Gay's has about 24 employees, full and part time. Over the 100 years, Doug estimates "hundreds" have worked for the family. That's a lot of paychecks and a lot of bread on kitchen tables.
"We enjoy our customers – we enjoy people," Doug said. "We know most everybody. We like to think if we're gone, people will miss us. I know a lot of people want us to continue."
The employees say they have stayed because they love their jobs, the family they work for and the people they serve.
"We're the base of Tunkhannock, Morgan said.
The Gay's True Value building on Bridge Street has 15,000 square feet of space on four floors. The top two floors are used mainly for storage; the second floor is for parts and service. The first floor is filled with aisle upon aisle of merchandise and departments – from tick removers to Christmas lights and from sporting goods to baby dolls, wagons and bikes.
There are stuffed heads of trophy game mounted everywhere. Two trophy deer hang in Doug's office. A black wildebeest hangs next to a blue wildebeest at the entrance to the sporting goods department, where David "Moon" Miller was putting together a crossbow for display.
"They have every conceivable bolt, nut and screw used today or in the past," Kraynack said. "Need a body mount cushion for your 1948 Studebaker? Go see Brooks upstairs in the small engine repair department, and you and he can hunt around for a piece of the roll of flat machinery belt that they haven't sold a length of in 40 years."
And what would that cost?
"Doug would say, ‘Does a dollar seem OK? Just tell Sharon at the register,' " Kraynack said. The selection and service keep people and dogs – pets are welcome -- coming to the store.
Bobbie Lee Morris has lived in Tunkhannock since 1972 and has shopped at Gay's almost every day. She came in Thursday to buy six gallons of paint – she left with a bowl and a platter for Thanksgiving dinner and some Halloween and Christmas decorations. She carried no paint.
"I'll get that next time," she said.
Dominick Talerico and Leo Hart have an apartment maintenance company. "Sometimes I feel like I work here, I'm here so often," Talerico said. He said if Gay's doesn't have what he needs, which is rare, the store will get it.
"I once bought a glass top for an old style coffee percolator here," he said.
On Thursday Hitomi Comstock was shopping with her son, Corey, who grabbed an interesting looking gadget off a display rack. It was a clothesline spreader. Comstock didn't buy it – yet. She said she will come back when she decides where to hang a clothesline.
Her husband, also named Corey, grew up in Tunkhannock; Hitomi is from Japan and she loves Gay's.
"This is my favorite place in America," she said. "This is something that is real."
Her husband bought his first hunting license at Gay's when he was 12 – he's now 37.
"They sell taps for maple trees here," he said. "Where else would you even look for that? Vermont?"
Rick Cord, a steady customer, said people bring broken things into Gay's, where the staff will make repairs.
"If Gay's doesn't reopen somewhere," he said, "it will leave a huge void in this community."
Doug Gay wants to re-open at a new location out of the flood plain. And the 20-plus employees of Gay's and just about everybody in the greater Tunkhannock area feel the hardware store must stay open somewhere.