SCHENECTADY — The circa-1985 headquarters of Chas G. Burch Supply Co. provides no hint that the plumbing company inside dates to 1890, or that the same family has run it for generations.
To figure that out, you’d have to talk to Charles Gilbert Craft — great-great-grandson of Charles Gilbert Burch — who’ll proudly tell you it’s the oldest business in Schenectady.
And with a growing kitchen/bath design department, he’s running out of space in the 1985 building and looking at construction on a lot next door.
“I do have plans to expand in the future,” Craft said. “We are growing substantially. We’ve just kind of outgrown the space that was built 35 years ago.”
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Chas Burch Supply, 760 State St. Schenectady. Pictured is owner Chuck Craft with wife, Jeven, son Gino and daughter Vivian.
Aside from new kitchens and bathrooms, the specialty of Chas G. Burch Supply Co. is the same: plumbing fittings, fixtures and equipment. Among the roughly 70,000 parts available, one will find everything needed to get water from the municipal water main to the faucets inside a house, then get it back out to the sewer line … plus everything needed for function and form along the way, including the faucets themselves.
The business can also supply the parts needed to keep antiquated and obsolete systems in working order. In an older city like Schenectady, there’s demand for that.
“We can still get parts from the 1920s,” Craft said. “Some people don’t want to remodel.”
One piece of the past that is gone is plumbing repair, which is what the company originally was formed to do. Chas G. Burch Supply Co. works with subcontractors on its design projects and can recommend plumbers to its customers, but it no longer fixes pipes itself.
Here are some highlights of the company’s long history:
- The business was founded as Deloose Williams’ Plumbing in 1890, in an era when plumbing technology and appreciation of the need for proper sanitation were advancing rapidly, and structures in dense urban areas were being fitted with plumbing.
- Williams took on a partner at some point and the business became Williams and Allen Plumbing. Current owner Charles Craft doesn’t know anything about Allen, or why he faded out of the picture.
- In 1906, Charles Gilbert Burch came aboard as a plumbing apprentice. The company eventually was known as Williams and Burch.
- When Williams died in 1927, his widow sold her share of the business to Burch, who renamed it Chas G. Burch Supply Co. in 1928.
- In 1949, a heart attack forced Burch to retire. His only child, Jeanette — the first female licensed plumber in the state outside New York City — took over the business and ran it for decades with her husband, John Craft.
- John and Jeanette’s son, Charles E. Craft Sr., worked at the business as early as age 7, sweeping floors in 1949. He took over in 1982 when his parents retired.
- The family business skipped a generation at this point, as Charles Sr.’s sons took different career paths. It also changed focus, from a plumbing contractor that also sold plumbing supplies to an expanded supply house that did no plumbing work itself.
- Charles E. Craft Jr.’s son, Charles G. Craft, began working in the shop at an early age. After earning a college degree and serving in the U.S. Navy, Charles G. Craft returned to work full time at the business and took over when his grandfather retired.
Charles G. Craft, now 34, is joined by his brother, Steven, who manages the parts counter, and his wife, Jeven, who handles human resources duties and online promotion.
Chas G. Burch Supply Co. began on Albany Street and is still there, in a manner of speaking. The showroom/warehouse Charles Sr. built in 1985 backs right up to the sidewalk on Albany Street, but that end of the lot is fenced off. The business address is 760 State St., where the parking lot entrance is located.
The Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority and a housing developer working in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood demolished three decayed structures next door on Albany Street, and Craft plans to buy the now-empty lot for future construction. His existing structure doesn’t feel as big as it once did.
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Chas Burch Supply, 760 State St. Schenectady.
“We have seven lines of kitchen cabinets, which is a big space hog,” Craft said.
He’s committed to the location even though its visibility to potential customers passing by isn’t great. A length of copper pipe isn’t an impulse purchase like a coffee and doughnut — he doesn’t need a blaring presence right on State Street. But he wouldn’t mind being a little more visible to traffic.
“The city’s not friendly with signage,” Craft said. “If somebody’s looking for a toilet, hopefully they look up ‘plumbing supplies.’ We do a lot of online marketing to help drive foot traffic.”
Sales are split about evenly between retail and wholesale, do-it-yourself property owners and professional plumbers.
Along with plumbing supplies, Chas G. Burch sells heating, cooling and ventilation supplies, and it provides kitchen and bath design.
Like small independent businesses everywhere in the era of giant corporate retailers, Chas G. Burch holds its own against the big-box stores with a personal touch and an extended inventory.
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“It all comes down to service. And customer relations,” Craft said. “It’s a relationship-based business.”
Craft reconfigured the store several years ago to route customers through the kitchen and bath showroom as they walked in from the parking lot to the parts counter. His grandfather, by then retired, thought it was a bad idea, but changed his mind when he saw the final configuration: It’s free and potentially effective advertising seen hundreds of times each business day.
“When they upgrade their kitchen or bathroom, we want them to think Chas G. Burch,” Jeven Craft said. “A lot of people know about us, but they don’t realize how much we’ve grown and how much we do. They know us for our plumbing parts and being able to get the part that you can’t get anywhere else. But they don’t realize we can do a complete kitchen remodel.”