Huntsville is a city of cutting edge technology – from space shuttles to Apple stores, our lives move at a fast pace. At times, it is easy to forget the way things used to be, when stores smelled of hayseed, flour, and strong black coffee. Nestled in a quiet spot on South Side Square, Harrison Brothers Hardware Store is a virtual time machine. Staffed with mostly volunteers, this general store turned historic museum and local artisan champion has managed to remain largely untouched by the 21st century.
The store was founded as a tobacco store in 1879 by brothers James and Daniel Harrison. Originally located on Jefferson Street, the store was relocated to South Side Square in 1897, where it became more of a general store. After a fire damaged the furniture store next door in 1901, the brothers bought the property and expanded their store to its current size.
John Harrison, a nephew of the original brothers, passed away in 1983, and since there were no more direct descendants, the store was in danger of being torn down. The Historic Huntsville Foundation stepped in, and raised the money to purchase the store from the remaining relatives. The store has been run as a nonprofit business since then.
The Historic Huntsville Foundation has strived to keep the store as close to the way that John Harrison left it as possible, complete with desks displaying stacks of receipts, orders, catalogs, and some surprising knick-knacks.
Store manager Ginger Cobl said, “When I finally thought I’d gotten a hold on where everything is and just what’s been left behind, I came up to a display, looked in, and stopped dead in my tracks. I thought, ‘Good God. Why do we have somebody’s teeth on display?’ Yep. They were one of the Harrison Brothers’ false teeth.” She tapped a display case containing what look like the world’s most uncomfortable pair of dentures sitting on top of some old receipts.Near the false teeth, a carefully preserved Juicy Fruit wrapper reads “Chewed in physics lecture room, March 27, 1925.”
As well as being a museum, the Harrison Brothers store also supports over 30 local and regional artisans, selling everything from gourmet grits to antique button jewelry. Local artists such as Lori Popp, Bob Gantt, and Gina Percifull each have full displays, as well as locally owned companies like 1818 Farms and MC’s Hallelujah Hands Pottery (whose cooking pottery contains complete recipes attached to the handles).
Near the front of the store, there is a display devoted entirely to local celebrity Tasia Malakasis, founder and owner of Belle Chevre creamery. There is also an impressive selection of honey from Savannah Bee Company, and local honey is also sold when it’s in season.
Cobl stressed the importance of supporting local artisans and of preserving historic landmarks like Harrison Brothers, saying, “When you spend a dollar locally, at least $.85 stays in the community. That’s huge. The one thing that people from out of town, even as far away as England, say when they visit here is that they get the sense of stepping back in time. It bridges all sorts of cultural gaps, because these places have disappeared from all over the world.” •