Ken Rothman’s first cash register was a cigar box.
On Saturdays, he stood outside his family’s North End hardware store on Salem Street and sold hot dog makers, storage containers, and mops.
He was 12 years old and shy, but never afraid to ask “Can I help you?” if he spied someone examining the wares. To his mother’s dismay, Rothman processed sales from his cigar box before customers entered the store.
“Don’t take the money out there,” she told him. “Just send them in with it and let them buy it in here.”
It was the beginning of a 51-year career in retail.
“I never understood: ‘Get ’em in the store so they’ll buy something else,’ but I was too young to understand that concept,” Rothman said. “I just didn’t want the money to go into the store. I wanted to do my own business out here.”
Now, after having spent most of his life at the Salem Street True Value Hardware, the 63-year-old Rothman is making his final sales.
He said he started liquidating the store’s inventory in August and plans to close early next year. The death in February of his 93-year-old father, Dave, contributed to the decision, Rothman said.
“I’m really just not happy here without him,” he said. “I started to think about it after 50 years. Every day. Nine, 10 hours a day. Six days a week. I hit the wall.”
Rothman said his life at the store started in 1964 when his grandmother, Eva, purchased the business from Resnick Hardware and operated it with her son, Milton.
Rothman said he worked there once a week until his family moved to Florida, where his mother’s relatives had promised opportunities in the hotel business.
The hotel deal never materialized, and after a year and three days, his family returned to Boston to run the hardware store, Rothman said.
Dave Rothman, who was trained as an appliance repairman, did not have retail experience but adapted to his new enterprise, his son said. His wife, Ilene, manned the cash register on Saturdays, and he expanded the business by doing repairs and experimenting with new products, Rothman said.
Maria Bova, a lifelong North End resident, said she brought “everything” to Dave Rothman to repair. “My vacuum cleaner, my lights, my blower, my curling iron. He’d fix anything for you,” she said.
In the store’s early days, many shop owners, including the Rothmans, were Jewish, and they served a predominantly Italian clientele, Rothman said.
Salem Street Hardware, as it was then known, sold decorative plaster statues and columns, paintings mounted on black velvet and adorned with lights, and small vases to hold almonds for wedding or shower favors, Rothman said.
“We were Jewish merchants in a very Italian neighborhood that truly catered to the Italian people,” he said.
Ilene Rothman died in 1976, and two years later, Rothman purchased the store from his father, he said. He modernized and increased the size of the store, expanded its hardware offerings, and introduced housewares such as towels, cooking utensils, and aprons.
In 1982, he joined the True Value cooperative.
“I wanted somebody to be able to furnish their condo or their apartment on a one-stop shop in one store,” Rothman said.
He met his wife, Susan, now 59, at work. She was a sales representative for gourmet kitchenware manufacturers, and Rothman was a customer.
“When we were married, I wanted to be part of the store and help out,” she said. “I wanted to be able to be with my husband,” she said.
Dave Rothman remained a fixture at the store, working there until November 2014, his son said.
In one memorable episode, Rothman and his father helped a woman remove a belly-button ring that had caused an infection, using needle-nose pliers and a rotary tool.
When he eulogized his father, Ken Rothman said he recalled trekking from Brighton in the Blizzard of 1978 to open the store.
“I said, ‘Dad what are we doing this for? I mean nobody’s open.’ He says, ‘We’re the hardware store. We need to be open for people who need stuff. That’s our commitment,’ ” Rothman said. “I never forgot that.”
Rothman has hung signs informing customers of his plans to close. Many wonder where they’ll go now for doorstops, paint, and other odds and ends.
“It’s my mom-and-pop Home Depot,” said Hannah VanParys, 25. “It’s tough in the North End to find [stores] with normal stuff that you need to do home repairs and cook.”
The Rothmans live in Needham and have two adult children, though they said neither wants the store. Ken Rothman said he failed to find another hardware store to move in. He plans to lease the property.
“Everybody says, ‘What are you going to do,’ ” Rothman said. “What I’ve come up with is I’m going to wake up every day and I am going to worry about what to do every day and that’ll be my job first thing. And I’ll figure it out from there.”