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Mini-cast 265: Gina Schaefer and Recovery Hardware

The EsOp Mini-cast with Bret Keisling: Excerpt of author interview with Gina Schaefer about her book "Recovery Hardware"

Bret Keisling is joined by Gina Schaefer, founder, board chair, and retired CEO of A Few Cool Hardware Stores, which was founded in 2003 in Washington D.C. It has since expanded to locations in the Washington D.C. and Baltimore, MD metro areas. In 2021 it became a partial ESOP with plans to eventually become majority and then 100% employee owned.


Gina shares the inspiring story of how her neighborhood hardware store hired a number of people who were in treatment at a nearby addiction center, and how the hardware store came to be known in the community as "Recovery Hardware," which became the title of her book.  


This episode is excerpted from next week's EsOp Podcast, which is a full conversation about Gina's path to employee ownership and so much more. You can buy Recovery Hardware online while also supporting independent booksellers here at

... or watch the video below.


About Gina Schaefer

"When she moved into a forlorn neighborhood that needed a hardware store, she built one. When she thought the recovery community needed businesses to believe in them, she became one, and when she suggested that inequality could be helped with business ownership, she began selling hers to her team.

Gina Schaefer is the Founder and Co-Owner of 15 hardware stores located in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, MD, and their suburbs. She and her team of 300 have helped millions of customers shop right where they live, in their urban communities, despite continuous pressure from bigger, stronger competitors.

Gina is a professional speaker and storyteller, engaging audiences on topics that include competing in a male dominated field, building a strong corporate culture, business succession planning, and all things small business.

In her book, Recovery Hardware, Gina chronicles her experiences building a business while learning from non-traditional teachers like folks from the recovery community and returning citizens. She serves as an advocate and spokesperson for causes directly related to raising wages, anti-monopoly legislation and small business development.

She draws her inspiration from fellow entrepreneurs who strive to be creative, think differently and help make a difference. People like Judy Wicks, founder of the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia who inspired her to use her voice as a force for good; Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig, founders of gourmet food group Zingerman's Community of Businesses in Michigan, from whom Schaefer learned innovative business strategies and Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, who taught her that nonprofit organizations need to think beyond simple charity.

Gina serves as board chair for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and is a member of CCA Global Partners’ Board of Directors. She spent 9 years on the corporate board of Ace Hardware and 12 with the House of Ruth. She relaxes by making greeting cards (she's a big believer in the power of the written note), kayaking, traveling, and reading.

Gina’s guiding principle comes from a treasured quote, 'I always wondered when somebody would do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.'"

About Recovery Hardware

Determined to bring her neglected neighborhood back to life, Gina Schaefer opened her first hardware store near Whitman-Walker's Addiction Services program. What began as an effort to help her community recover evolved into a safe space for countless people in recovery to rebuild their lives.

Recovery Hardware shares A Few Cool Hardware Stores' CEO Gina Schaefer's path to building a business that revitalized her neglected urban community and provided opportunities for everyone to thrive, no matter their past.

You'll discover:

  • Lessons from resilient employees who struggled with substance abuse.

  • Surprising skills from unconventional backgrounds that you won't find on a résumé.

  • How to put bravery into the backbone of your business.

  • Humorous insights into retail ownership, like how to choose the right store dog.

  • Workforce solutions to remove obstacles for people in recovery.

Second chances transform communities and change lives - and it starts with one store at a time. Read Recovery Hardware and start building a better business where growth gives back.


Mini-cast 265 Transcript

[00:00:00] Bret Keisling: Welcome to the EsOp Mini-cast. Thank you so much for listening. My name is Bret Keisling, and as it says on my business cards, I'm a passionate advocate for employee ownership. This Tuesday on our primary EO/ESOP podcast, we have a deep dive conversation with Gina Schaefer, who is the founder, chair of the board, and retired CEO of A Few Cool Hardware Stores, which became a partial ESOP in 2021.

[00:00:37] Bret Keisling: Most of the podcast, naturally, is about business and employee ownership, but we do discuss Gina's book, Recovery Hardware, that I find so inspiring that I wanted to share her description with you in today's Mini-cast.

[00:00:50] Here's Gina Schaefer discussing Recovery Hardware.

[00:00:54] Gina you are an author and your book ties in various themes of what is important in your life from the business to other things, but Recovery Hardware is the topic of the book.

[00:01:05] We will include a link to where you can get the book in the show notes and we'll have some other information about Gina as well. But tell me about Recovery Hardware.

[00:01:14] Gina Schaefer: So, in 2014, one of my teammates, whose name is Mark, not my husband Mark, came to me and said the community where our store was had nicknamed us "Recovery Hardware."

[00:01:22] And that was significant because so many of our teammates had come from a local recovery clinic called the Whitman Walker Addiction Services Program that was right down the street from our store. And, when we opened that first location, there were a couple of things that we decided that we were not going to, we were not going to put any obstacles in front of employment, which was a pretty radical thought at the time.

[00:01:45] So, here's a really strong example. At the time, it was still legal to have the felony box on the application. Whether you want to call me naive or stupid or shortsighted, or I've been called all of them, I thought that the felony box was a rude question. I distinctly remember thinking, this is rude, I'm not going to ask it. And I think a little bit of it was, I was, I thought it was being nosy, honestly.

[00:02:07] Bret Keisling: That's very funny.

[00:02:08] Gina Schaefer: So, we banned the box before we legally were required to ban the box. My very first teammate had been in prison for 17 years. And I didn't know that when I hired him. He didn't feel like he needed to tell me that.

[00:02:20] And then we got to know each other, and he felt comfortable telling me that, and then he became part of our story. And he worked with us for almost 11 years. And had I asked him that question, I'd like to think I would have hired him anyway, but a lot of people wouldn't have. His application would have immediately gone in the trash.

[00:02:36] The second person who came to interview was six weeks clean from a crystal meth addiction. And anybody who's dealt with any kind of addiction knows that you are only what your next day gets you, and so it didn't matter, really, if it was six weeks, or six months, or six years. I mean, obviously, and he told me that.

[00:02:54] And I remember thinking, wow, that seems so honest. I'm so happy that this guy told me this. And I also said, I don't care. I don't care. And his story is more involved in that because I didn't hire him at first and then I did, but we are to this day, friends. He's been clean for 21 years. He left, but when he left working with us, he started telling everybody else in the recovery rooms to go see that lady at the hardware store.

[00:03:17] And so he sent Skippy, who sent Brian, who sent another guy named Mark, who sent... And before we knew it, people were joking about having AA meetings in the plumbing aisle because we just had this wonderful community of people who, oh, by the way, also happened to be going to recovery meetings down the street.

[00:03:34] So, to get back to your original question, my coworker, Mark, came to me and said, this is what the community is calling us. I sobbed because I thought it was such a beautiful nickname. People had been asking me for years to write a book about starting a hardware business. Which I just, frankly, didn't think was an interesting enough topic for a book and the second he said that I said, that's not only the name but I'm going to tell the stories of how we've done this to hopefully inspire other businesses to do something similar.

[00:04:00] And so, that's how it started. I started writing it in, I wrote the first draft in 2020, January 2020, and published in September of '23, I think it was. Yep, I think it was '23. Nope, '22. Sorry, '22. And I've been talking about it ever since.

[00:04:16] Bret Keisling: Well, first of all it, it speaks to how you may be an overachiever because a number of people started writing during COVID. You got the book finished before COVID.

[00:04:26] Gina Schaefer: No. I, no, I, no, I started writing in 2020. Yeah, I started writing right before COVID hit, not knowing it was coming, and then I wrote, I finished it, yeah. It was, it actually, just to tie the EO bow on it, when I started writing it, we hadn't decided that we were going to form the ESOP. And so that was never part of the original manuscript. And then when it was getting closer and closer to publishing time, we had decided to form the ESOP, and it was a beautiful way to say, this is where we started, and this is how we're going to end. And “end” is not right, because we're not ending, but, yes.

[00:04:59] Bret Keisling: It's funny when you said "end" I was going so completely opposite of, oh my goodness, this is a great excuse to have an additional reprint. You know, in a year or two, an updated version of how it's going now.

[00:05:13] Gina what you're doing and I would like to ask a couple of questions about it. What you're doing is so important and to share with... it doesn't come up a whole lot in the podcast, but my actual, my recovery date is Memorial Day 1990.

[00:05:26] Gina Schaefer: Right on. Awesome! Awesome!

[00:05:28] Bret Keisling: Thank you. And, as you and I chatted a little bit, it beat dying. You know, why did I quit drinking? I had to!

[00:05:34] Bret Keisling: With that, we'll wrap up this episode of the Mini-cast. Please visit the show notes for this episode for a link to Gina's website and her book, including a link for, which is a platform designed to support independent bookstores, a cause which is very important to Gina.

[00:05:50] Join us this Tuesday on our primary EO/ESOP podcast for my full conversation with Gina Schaefer.

[00:05:56] Thank you so much for listening. This is Bret Keisling. Be well.


[00:06:01] Bitsy McCann: We'd love to hear from you! You can find us on Facebook at EO Podcast Network and on Twitter [X] @EsOpPodcast. This podcast has been produced by Bret Keisling for the EO Podcast Network. Original music composed by Max Keisling. Branding and marketing by BitsyPlus Design. And I'm Bitsy McCann.

Standard Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are my own and don't represent those of my own firms or the organizations to which I belong. Nothing in the podcast should be construed as guidance or advice of any kind in any field and the fact that I mentioned an organizational website or an advocate or a company on a podcast does not reflect an endorsement, but if you've heard your name or your group's name mentioned on this podcast, I'd love to have you come on and talk about it yourself.

A note on the transcript: This transcript was produced by Descript, an automated transcription service. While it has been reviewed by The EsOp Podcast, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the transcription. Please refer to the original audio when citing sources.


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