Cantelmi’s Hardware

Cantelmi’s Hardware

The year was 1922. World War I had ended just four years earlier, Prohibition ruled the day, and Italian immigrant Placido “Patsy” Cantelmi decided to go into business for himself.

Already employed at a local hardware store, Patsy’s business began as a glass and paint store on the 500 block of E. Fourth St. in Bethlehem.

“We mark October 1, 1922 as the official founding date for Cantelmi’s Hardware,” said Rick Cantelmi, Patsy’s grandson and the third generation owner.

The business expanded to include hardware a few years later. And when the Great Depression hit in 1929, Patsy diversified even further, reportedly selling apples (and the presses for juicing them) and other atypical merchandise. His generosity at that time became the stuff of neighborhood legend. If a fellow needed some glass to fix a broken window but couldn’t afford to pay for it, Patsy sometimes just gave it to him, with a pay-me-when-you-can agreement. “He never even kept a record of those transactions,” Rick said. “But when things got better, most of those people remembered— and paid him back.”

Rick’s dad, Louis, started working at the store as a youngster, and went full-time in 1939. In the 1940’s, Patsy added to the property, doubling its physical depth; of course, that made room for more products, too.


Louis Cantelmi took over the business in 1968 and boldly expanded the store again. “He bought the 509 building next door and tore down the dividing wall to make one big area,” Rick said. “I was about 12 at the time, and remember helping by hauling stuff in a wheelbarrow.”

Cantelmi’s next milestone came in 1986, when the company purchased a nearby former silk mill. (The Lehigh Valley had been a major producer of silk fabric in the early part of the 20th century.) “It took us the better part of a year to move the store,” Rick recalled, “because we first had to haul out everything that the previous owners had left behind. And the building had no heat and a broken sprinkler system.”

The new digs provided 36,000 square feet of space overall; the first-floor store area jumped from 3,000 square feet to about 8,000. “Formerly, we had materials stacked everywhere. We finally had enough room to spread everything out,” Rick recalled.

But the changes didn’t end there. The store’s layout had been configured as a U-shape, but in 2000 it was converted to one big rectangle, with improved heating and cooling systems. “That gave us 19,000 square feet of store space,” he said, “and we have just as much space in the basement. That’s where we keep our heavier equipment and seasonal products.” He added that the basement also houses a small-engine repair shop with a full-time mechanic.

Cantelmi’s product mix has expanded as well. “The store has 21,000 SKUs [items],” Rick said, “and that covers everything from a pair of pliers to large Stihl gas-powered chainsaws. We also cut keys, glass and plexiglass, and can make and repair storm and screen windows.”


How does Ace Hardware fit in? Well, in the early ‘60s, both generations agreed it was time to join a buying co-op. Those purchasing associations enable members to take advantage of the co-op’s bulk-buying power.

Cantelmi’s was affiliated with True Value for 14 years until switching to Ace Hardware in 1977. “We were one of the first Ace stores in the area,” he added. “At the time, its warehouse was in Atlanta, and our stock was trucked out from there. One time, a driver was behind schedule and arrived at 9:00 p.m., long after we had closed. But I was living above the store then, so I came down and helped him unload our stuff.”


Cantelmi’s location has helped to make it more than your usual neighborhood hardware store. “Lehigh University has been a major client for decades,” Rick said, “and we provide a lot of materials to different departments within the city of Bethlehem. It’s a good way to help keep money in our own community.” Other municipalities and local manufacturers are customers as well.

As Cantelmi’s Hardware approaches its centennial, the store continues to evolve. “We’ve been selling hardware and merchandise online since 2017,” Rick said, “and we hope to expand that portion of the business in the future.”

“Growing up in the business” is practically a cliché, but it’s a family tradition at Cantelmi’s. Both Louis and Rick spent summers and school breaks working in the store, prior to assuming ownership, and Rick’s son Patrick is following the same path.

“There are other family-named companies that have lasted for nearly a century,” Rick said, “but not many that are still owned by the original founding family.”


In the beginning (more or less), there was the general store—a place where people could buy, well, generally everything: fabrics, flour, hoes, guns, candy, hats, and on and on.

But over time, some enterprising shopkeepers started to focus less on “soft” goods (such as food and textiles) and more on “hard” goods such as tools, agricultural gear, cutlery, metal utensils, and building products. In other words, they ran hardware stores.

As tools evolved and became easier for homeowners to use, hardware stores reached out to do-it-yourselfers. Design consultants, color guides and other how-to services emerged.

About 100 years ago, the industry suddenly realized that women existed, and expanded its offerings to include hard goods for the home— cookware, for example, and cutlery. After World War II, small electrical appliances such as irons and vacuum cleaners entered the product mix.

But as department stores, chain stores, and mailorder businesses began selling those same items, hardware stores shifted back to its roots of home improvement and repair goods.

Today, you’ll find the typical screwdrivers, hammers, nails, and other tools, along with gasfired grills, electric saws, riding lawn mowers, and other now-commonplace products that would bewilder Daniel Waldo, Sr., the man who reportedly founded America’s first hardware store in 1782.

521-529 E 4TH ST

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