KIDRON, Ohio -- To the scores of tourists who travel to the sprawling but somehow-still-charming hardware store that put this tiny farming community on the map a half-century ago, Jay Lehman is a local version of Bill Gates, an astute businessman who grew a tiny niche market into a global enterprise.
Half a million do their shopping each year in person, pairing a trip down hardware's Memory Lane with a visit to Ohio's Amish country. (The store is busiest during the fall and Christmas shopping seasons.) Others boost company sales through its 170-page catalog or extensive Web site, which features a toll-free 24-hour order line. Orders have been sent as far as Tibet.
Yet the plain-living Amish who travel there by buggy in search of things no one else sells in person -- a wood-burning cookstove or hand-crank mixer, perhaps, or a rebuilt Maytag wringer washer that runs on gasoline -- probably have a different view of Mr. Lehman: that of a savior.
Had he not bought the 30-by-40-foot hardware store perched at a crossroad in the center of town back in 1955, many of the items they need to live off the grid might likely have vanished. Nor would some of them have jobs. It's gotten awfully tough in these parts to make a full-time living off the land, so a growing number of Amish are turning to cottage industries such as furniture making and arts and crafts for their livelihoods. Lehman's Hardware sells the fruits of their labor to other Amish, tourists and non-Amish locals.
The rich and famous also have come calling. So has Hollywood. Rachael Ray, Paula Deen and Martha Stewart are just a few of the celebrities who've bought from Lehman's and its product has been featured in films as varying as "The Patriot" and "Cold Mountain" to "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Mystic River."
Pulling anecdotes from this modest, unassuming King of Hardware is kind of like yanking a 31/2-inch nail out of petrified wood. But Mr. Lehman tells a funny story about his first brush with Tinseltown in the mid '90s. Out of the blue, he recounts in his vaguely German accent, a producer in Miami called looking for some old-fashioned oil lamps. And he needed them that very day!