At Ohio store, sales are simple

Glenda Lehman Ervin likes to kid around with her father, Jay Lehman, chairman and founder of Kidron, Ohio-based Lehman’s. “I tell him, ‘You’re so out of style, you’re hip,’” she said, adding, “We get a kick out of hearing people come in and say, ‘Look at this new place we found,’ when, in fact, we’ve been doing this for 50 years.”

In an era when “green” living has become a popular option for many Americans, it’s just business as usual at Lehman’s. The store was founded in 1955 by Jay Lehman and his father, sister and brother to serve the local Amish community with a large selection of non-electric goods. Skip ahead more than 50 years, and Lehman’s is a thriving business that is still focused on old-fashioned, environmentally friendly products. It also recently doubled in size—moving into a reconstructed 1849 barn with 32,000 square feet of space.

In addition to northern Ohio’s Amish communities, Lehman’s attracts environmentalists, homesteaders, missionaries and others looking for a more natural, self-sufficient lifestyle. “We’re a niche business, like a hardware store of 100 years ago,” Lehman Ervin said. “And with the depth of product we carry, you could also say we’re a low-tech superstore—a Best Buy from the 1820s.”

While Lehman’s has been a member of True Value and Do it Best at different times in its history, it is no longer associated with the co-ops and buys from a wide variety of sources. Amish crafters, who once were simply customers, now provide Lehman’s with quilt frames, well buckets, wheel barrows, chicken crates, buggy robes and other hand-crafted products. The store also has a large selection of oil lamps, corn planters and canning supplies, as well as hot-selling retro items like claw-foot bathtubs, butter churns, wood-burning stoves, propane-powered refrigerators and crank-powered radios and flashlights.

Lehman’s saw boosts in business during the energy shortage of 1973, the Y2K scare, after Sept. 11, 2001, and again after the massive August 2003 power blackout that had Midwesterners searching for appliances that didn’t need to be plugged in to work. “Our customers have included Peace Corps workers, doctors working in remote areas of the world and large property owners in places like Montana who might not be near an electric grid,” Lehman Ervin said. “We offer all the things for a sustainable lifestyle in terms of heat, food, light and water.”

Yet for all its old-fashioned spirit, Lehman’s new store is equipped with some modern touches. For instance, a theatre allows for demonstrations of tools and films on Amish life. And there’s a Hollywood connection as well. The producers of films like “Cold Mountain,” “War of the Worlds,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Gangs of New York” have all called on Lehman’s to provide authentic products from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“They’re not looking for antiques. They’re looking for new-looking, authentic pieces from different time periods, and we can provide them,” Lehman Ervin said.

All told, Lehman’s has customers in 208 countries—as well as throughout the United States. And the business keeps growing and becoming increasingly profitable, Lehman Ervin said. “The United States is based on that pioneer spirit: ‘I can take care of my family, living off the land, eating what’s in season,’” she said. “It’s not just a hobby for my dad. He wants to preserve that spirit for future generations.”