Plain wooden buckets were the best-selling item in the early
days of a hardware store located in the heart of Yorkville. Back when beer
flowed like water, many a thirsty laborer brought home his brew in a pail from
a nearby saloon or from one of several big breweries in the largely German
neighborhood. (At the turn of the century, local resident Harpo Marx learned to
tell time on the Hell Gate brewery clock after his brother swiped his watch.)
Second-generation German-Americans Bernhart and Elizabeth Wankel bought a building just a block away from a Third Avenue El stop and opened their hardware store in 1896. As Bernhart was a street musician, tending to the business -- and providing security for her family -- fell largely to Elizabeth.
It is still flourishing in the same location, now managed by the founders' great- granddaughter, the third Wankel woman to run the company. (The late Dr. Felix Wankel, inventor of the rotary engine, is a relative.) In addition to beer buckets, the store's stock at first consisted mainly of tools and materials for the construction trade. No longer.
Today the El is gone, the breweries are gone, the German restaurants are gone, scores of high-rise apartment buildings dot the landscape...and Wankel's has changed with the neighborhood. Only a small percentage of its sales are now to construction professionals. Most of its customers are Yorkville neighbors who appreciate the store's neat organization, its attentive service, and its many well-stocked departments, including automotive, garden, small appliances, pet supplies, office supplies, doors and windows, electrical, plumbing, and building supplies.
Something else that endears the store to its customers is its employment policy. Wankel's hires the physically or mentally challenged, the formerly homeless or incarcerated, runaway teens who are trying to turn their lives around, as well as refugees from war, famine, and political repression.
Sean McMorrow is a 5th-generation family member at Wankel's Hardware Store, located on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, NY. He was born in 1983 and has been a part of the store working weekends with his grandfather, Carl Wankel (A former President of the National Retail Hardware Association in 1980) since he was 5 years old, including summers when he was off from school. In 2002, he was promoted to manager at the store, enjoying that position for seven years. He was recently named Vice President in charge of Marketing and Merchandising. Wankel's Hardware has been open since 1896 and has been owned and operated in the same location by the Wankel family. It is currently owned by the 4th generation, Ms. Katherine Wankel.