Benders named co-citizens of the year

The couple own Moorestown Hardware on Mill Street.

Photo by Gina Zegel. The Moorestown Service Club Council selected Pete and Julie Bender as the Co-Citizens of the Year for 2021. The Benders own and run Moorestown Hardware on Mill Street.

It was an arduous year for people around the world in 2020, with no community left untouched by COVID. And with the Moorestown community spending more time at home than ever, Julie and Peter Bender were there to support fellow residents in any way they could.

“We haven’t closed at all during this whole thing: We have to be here for our customers,” said Julie, who owns Moorestown Hardware on Mill Street with her husband.

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It was the Benders’ support of and dedication to helping others last year that has earned them the co-citizens of the year award for 2021. The humble husband-and-wife team are Moorestown natives, so the honor is especially meaningful.

“Our roots are here. To receive this recognition for doing what we do is really special,” Peter said.

The couple met in town. Peter recalls walking by Julie’s childhood home on his way to Roberts Elementary School and he has a distinct memory of her playing on the front lawn. He typically played in his own backyard, so he wondered what Julie was doing out there. He would spend the next 25 years chasing her.

Julie worked at Peter Pan Gift Shop in the ‘80s. Peter ran into her while grabbing lunch on Main Street one day and struck up a conversation. He had just purchased a house in town and invited Julie to have a date night with him that evening. 

“The rest is history,” Peter noted.

In March, the Benders will celebrate 20 years of owning Moorestown Hardware. Peter was in retail management when he had a particularly bad day at work and wandered into McChesney’s Hardware on Mill Street. Frustrated with his boss, he offered to buy the hardware store if it ever went up for sale, and, lo and behold, it did. He and Julie have owned the place ever since. After six months, Julie left her job at Peter Pan to help her husband run the business. 

Prior to owning the store, the pair made a point to pop into local hardware stores wherever they traveled. 

“There’s something primal about a hardware store,” Peter explained. “No matter where you go, it’s part of the fabric of the community. When you go into these stores, you get a flavor for what the area is or was like. For me, it was absolutely the draw of running my own business.”

Both Benders brought their backgrounds and experience to the business,    along with a pure desire to help people. Julie said they’ve always been interested in helping people figure out how to fix things or solve their problems, so the hardware store is a natural extension of that drive. Their store philosophy is that they sell solutions. 

Peter looks at every interaction with a customer as an opportunity to make his or her life a little better. On occasional — and very rare — bad days,  that’s what keeps him going. 

When Moorestown High School approached the Benders a few years ago about a partnership to provide work service opportunities for special needs students, they agreed without a second thought. They call the students their interns and are happy to provide them with work around the store.

“Everybody needs a purpose in life, something they can feel good to do,” Julie offered. 

The pair prefer to take a behind-the-scenes role in their community service work. On small business Saturday each year, they choose a local charity (usually the Moorestown Community House or Perkins Center of the Arts) and donate a portion of their sales. If the Moorestown Business Association hosts a town event and needs trash bags, tape or other supplies, the Benders donate them at no cost.

They two maintain a certain level of anonymity with kind gestures because they believe their charity work is not a big deal, but rather what neighbors do.

When COVID struck, the Benders knew they had to remain open for their customers. They took orders over the phone for curbside pickup or made personal trips to drop off items on porches. 

Julie recalled that people were scared to visit crowded places like big retailers and wanted to go somewhere where they’d feel safe and secure. She and Peter were happy to provide that sanctuary. 

The way the couple see the community is not unlike the way they look at a family. Peter believes everyone has a part to play in making the community a positive place. 

“You make your family what it is if it’s good or bad,”’ he said. “You’re instrumental in creating an environment that allows [people] to foster or flounder.

“We feel that same level of responsibility [about Moorestown].”

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