When I first became a contributor to this blog several years ago, I was invited by Glenda Ervin (vice president of marketing and daughter of company founder Jay Lehman) to stop in for a behind-the-scenes tour if I was ever in the area. Since we live in Idaho, this seemed unlikely.
Until recently. Our adult daughter was returning home from a job in New Jersey, and I flew out to help drive her car across the country. We made a particular point to stop in at Lehman’s. There was no way I was missing the opportunity for this tour.
“Behind the scenes” is actually a misnomer, since we never left the premises or explored warehouse inventory. Instead I learned the retail store reflects exactly what its founding principles promise: Low-tech goods for a self-sufficient lifestyle, with an emphasis on meeting the needs of the Amish. It also gives back to the community by representing many Plain goods, which provides income for Amish craftsmen and women.
I was shown the structural changes the store underwent over the last few decades. Buildings were joined onto other buildings, often consisting of old barns disassembled by Amish carpenters and reassembled on-site, with the original adze marks lovingly preserved.
Even the floorboards bespoke craftsmanship. During one expansion, blending an old building onto an existing one, Glenda told the carpenters: “Whatever you do to make a floor not squeak, don’t do it.” A squeaking floorboard has a respected history behind it. Why disguise that beautiful patina of age?
A surprising amount of Lehman’s purpose is education. How does someone go about achieving those four pillars of simplicity? Every single Lehman’s employee is on standby (online, in person, or on the phone) to help customers answer that question.
To this end, sales clerks have specialties and can be called upon to assist a customer in their area of expertise. Whether that specialty is non-electric lighting, or canning, or making soap, or doing laundry, or beekeeping, or installing a wood cookstove, or any other aspect of a low-impact or non-electric lifestyle, a Lehman’s employee can be there to help with personal experience and knowledge. And it goes beyond that. Did you know store personnel undergo training and become certified – certified! – in their areas of expertise to better assist customers? I found that amazing.
Lehman’s is more than just a collection of goods; it is also a living museum of rural Americana. Whenever anyone has an antique or a unique collection they don’t want discarded, they donate it. Every room in the store has shelves or niches or nooks with historical examples of various items: cookstoves, plows, miniature sewing machines, wagon wheels, carpentry tools, laundry items, kitchen utensils, even an antique yardstick collection and a pig oiler. If an item is incomplete – say, an orphaned base for a woodstove – then it’s pressed into service as a display unit. In short, education is everywhere.
I learned that since the store’s beginning, Lehman’s has donated 10 percent of its pre-tax profits to charitable giving, with two priorities: Empowering people to escape poverty, and providing access to nutritious food and clean water. Sometimes this takes the form of domestic and international disaster relief projects. Other times they assist with international “micro” business loans and startup aid to individual entrepreneurs. In all cases – and reflecting the philosophy of the retail store – they believe in giving people a “hand up, not a handout.”
There were so many things I learned about this remarkable institution in the two hours I was there that it almost defies description. I was left with one overarching impression: Lehman’s is the real deal. They practice what they preach. In every aspect of their marketing, layout, and customer service, they’re dedicated to the principles they espouse.
Go there. It’s well worth it.