© Jerry F. Couch 2019
THE STORY OF LAY’S HARDWARE & FURNITURE CO. IN ST. PAUL began with a false start in January of 1909. That’s when J. P. Lay purchased two vacant lots on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Broad Street from the St. Paul Improvement Co. Presumably, the reason for this purchase was to build a Lay’s Hardware in St. Paul as an extension of the company’s existing operation in Coeburn.
Lay must have had second thoughts, however, because on June 11, 1909, he sold his lots to J. Fred Johnson (the founder of Kingsport) and Steven R. Jennings (an executive of the Clinchfield Coal Corp.). The lots remained vacant and in June of 1912, Jennings sold his half-interest to Johnson.
In May of 1919, Johnson sold the lots to Earnest Rainero. Rainero purchased a contiguous third lot and the Rainero Bros. crew of brickmasons began construction of the single-story building presently occupied (in 2019) by Giovanni’s Pizza, and an adjoining two-story theater building.
While the Gaiety Theatre was still under construction, Earnest Rainero sold the unbuilt portion of his three lots to his friend and fellow Italian immigrant, Guy L. Molinary. The Rainero Brothers’ crew quickly set to work constructing a grocery store building for Molinary that was similar in size and shape to the Gaiety. In the photo below, you can see the three buildings as they appeared in the 1920’s.
Everything went well on bustling Fourth Avenue for a time, then came the Great Depression. Like every grocer in St. Paul, Guy Molinary was caught in the pinch. As a result, he and several others were forced into bankruptcy. In October of 1933, the lowest ebb of the Great Depression, the G. L. Molinary store building was sold to the St. Paul National Bank at a court-ordered auction.
During the depression, the St. Paul National Bank purchased numerous properties in and around St. Paul. The bank rented its properties to tenants while the bank’s president, M. M. Long, patiently waited for better times. With the advent of WWII, those times finally came. In May of 1944, the bank sold the former Molinary store building to Mrs. Lillie J. Lay. Soon, Lay’s Hardware and Furniture Co. was doing business on Fourth Avenue.
As war production wound down, manufacturers resumed production of durable goods for the postwar era. There was considerable built-up consumer demand for household appliances of every types. Lay’s Hardware was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of this demand.
The following brief history of Lay’s Hardware & Furniture Co. is from an early 1960’s “Progress Edition” of the Clinch Valley Times. The accompanying photo of the store and its manager, Mr. Stuart Robinson is from the same edition of the CVT.
Lay’s Hardware in St. Paul was opened in October of 1944 with Mr. Gilmer Fields as manager and Mrs. Fields as bookkeeper. Mrs. Gilmer Fields resigned for a brief time, returning to her duties as bookkeeper in 1952 and is with Lay’s at the present time.
Following the death of Mr. Fields, Mr. Stuart Robinson came to work as assistant manager in 1953. In August of 1955 he became manager and serves in this position now.
The St. Paul Lay’s Hardware and Furniture is one of three stores owned by Mr. W. W. Lay of Coeburn, who manages a Lay’s Hardware and Furniture that has been in operation since 1900. Also, there is a Lay’s Hardware in Norton under the management of Charles G. Adams, which opened in June 1941.
The following is a transcription of a Clinch Valley Times’ article concerning a robbery at Lay’s which took place on February 12, 1971. Look closely at the slideshow of interior photos – they provide a glimpse of what the store was like.
LAYS HARDWARE ROBBED
St. Paul policemen had a busy week last week as they responded to a robbery of a local hardware store and chased down a car thief.
According to Patrolman Cotton Austin, arrests were made in both cases. Arrested shortly after the break-in was a young Castlewood man, and arrested a short time later in connection with the auto theft was a Washington D. C. youth.
Austin said that as he was making the rounds in St. Paul around 4 am last Friday he noticed something awry at Lay’s Hardware. As he passed, he noticed an article just outside the store and broken glass on the sidewalk. Upon closer investigation, he discovered the store had been broken into; that glass was broken from the front door and a record player was on the sidewalk. Austin Called in Chief Dailey and the Wise County Sheriff’s Department to assist in the investigation.
Austin said that he searched the store immediately, thinking that perhaps the thief was still in the building. He said that after the search, he had a hunch about the robbery and checked this hunch out. This proved fruitful and in only a very few minutes after the robbery, Austin had the man in jail.
Stolen items from the hardware were found in the man’s car, and after further investigation all through the morning, several items were discovered strewn to the rear of the factory and bank parking lots. These items were in the path that the man apparently took to get to his parked car across the railroad.
Inside the store, the thief had broken glass out of a side door in the building, as well as a knife display case and had strewn items on the floor of the store, including shotgun shells and lanterns. Two lanterns, an air rifle, and some shotgun shells were found in the parking lot of the factory. Found in the man’s car were various items that were taken from a display in the store.
The Lay’s Hardware & Furniture Co. building was purchased by the St. Paul Assembly of God many years ago. It had been empty for some time and was demolished so the church’s parking lot could be expanded. Today, “ghosts” of the building’s upstairs apartments are still visble on the brick side wall of the former Gaiety Theatre. Though long gone, the store and the people who worked there live on in the memories of older St. Paul residents. It is part of St. Paul’s evolving history.