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Reflections: A reverential look at hardware stores

The interior of the hardware department of Schultz's Store (possibly Schultz & Peterson at this time) on the west side of Main Street at Main and Washington is seen in about 1922. The customer is believed to be John Peter Lantz.
The interior of the hardware department of Schultz's Store (possibly Schultz & Peterson at this time) on the west side of Main Street at Main and Washington is seen in about 1922. The customer is believed to be John Peter Lantz.

It’s a near religion for some.

Approached with the almost reverential attitude, its aisles, nooks and corners easily can bring a lump to the throat of almost anyone. Quiet, broken by occasional quiet laughter or serious discussions on this or that aspect, pervades, with the particular incense of special times and places pervading the atmosphere. Wise counsel can (and usually is) provided, and the support staff, while sometimes stern in outlook, always is ready to help the wayward.

You have undoubtedly guessed that I am, of course, talking about the hardware store. Although, I’m ready to admit some people may not get quite as misty-eyed or as spiritually moved about hardware stores as I do. Particularly, for instance, my wife.

Little did she realize when we got married lo all those many years ago (and getting many more way too quickly) that the hardware store would provide a central focus of our lives. However, she admitted she had gotten an inkling of what her subsequent years might be like only a couple short months after we were married. Living in an upstairs apartment in DeKalb, we were preparing for my parents’ February wedding anniversary, and so a shopping expedition to find a present was called for. And where else to go but to the hardware store?

“In my family, we usually didn’t go to the hardware store to buy an anniversary gift,” she said. “In fact, we didn’t go to the hardware store at all. If we needed some hardware, we’d go to Sears.”

That shows just how much city folks know. Sears was not a hardware store. Although there are Sears Hardware stores nowadays, back then, Sears was a department store with a really great revolving charge plan perfectly fitted to post-World War II suburban families moving into new subdivisions.

But you had to go to a real hardware store to get things such as a nail. Not a box of nails, but a nail. My grandfather, who, let’s face it, was not exactly Mr. Spend-a-Lot-o’-Money, would determine how many nails he needed for a project, and then he’d go down to the hardware store and buy that many nails.

Thrift (some would call it cheapness) runs deep in my family. My uncle considered the modern practice of selling men’s underwear several to a package a personal affront.

“How,” he asked, “do you know you want three pairs of underpants? What if they don’t fit? Then you’ve got three pair and you’re stuck with them.”

That is a very good point, which is why hardware stores are the very bedrock of America. You don’t have to buy a whole box of nails. You go back to the place where the nails are kept in bins and you buy what you need. The helpful hardware man or woman measures them out and puts them in a paper bag for you, and you go home, and you don’t worry about what to do with all of the leftover nails.

So the hardware store was the natural destination for finding that perfect anniversary gift for my parents. Off we went, and we’re still going. Much to my wife’s chagrin. And sometimes chagrin doesn’t quite cover it.

A few years ago, we were at the hardware store to pick up a new filter for the humidifier, and she suggested that if she had known we’d spend such a large portion of our married lives poking through hardware store aisles, she might have thought twice about tying the knot lo those many years ago.

That is when I reminded her that, speaking of knots, you can buy twine, rope and electrical wire by the foot, which means you’d only need to get as much as it would take to tie whichever knot is your current favorite. Right now, I’m partial to sheepshanks (if you need to shorten up a clothes line, a sheepshank’s your baby), but double half-hitches are nothing to sneeze at. Of course, there’s always the standby square knot and the sometimes elegant, although whimsical, bowline.

Those observations did not put her in as good a mood as I thought they might. She reminded me that we bought my parents a bell during our first hardware excursion, and that it still hangs on the wall outside our back door. She noted, with more than a hint of asperity in her voice, that bells get rung, suggesting that the same could happen to me.

Maybe – and I’m just supposing here based on spousal reactions – this love of hardware stores is mostly a guy thing. I do know that when I start talking about needing a half-inch to three-eighths reducer or the relative merits of natural bristle brushes (oil paint) and synthetic brushes (latex-based finishes) she gets the same look in her eyes I noticed the fifth time we toured the U.S. Air Force Museum at Dayton, Ohio. The kind of look that said, to me, at least, “If ‘B-36’ passes your lips one more time, buster, it’s curtains.”

Speaking of which, they actually have curtains at hardware stores, you know. Not all of them, but at the better stores. And if not curtains, certainly curtain rods, even those cool ones with the pull cords that have a doohicky that allows a valance to be hung in front of the actual curtains so as to make your living room look just like a real classy joint, like a funeral home. When the curtains are closed, that is.

My wife explained that her father never went to the hardware store because he wasn’t “handy,” suggesting that I am handy. Which I’m not. My grandfather was handy – he built barns and houses and installed electrical wiring and did plumbing. My dad was handy – he could fix cars and tractors and build furniture and knew how to rope cattle. Those guys were handy. Me, I’m just a handy wannabe looking for my own private nirvana in the nails, screws and bolts aisle. Or possibly plumbing supplies.

• Looking for more local history? Visit historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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