A few weeks ago, I spent three minutes in a hardware store seeking an air-conditioner air filter that was unavailable in nearby grocery stores and big-box hardware stores. I found it, but could not bring myself to simply pay and leave after three minutes, choosing instead to linger and indulge myself in reliving a reminiscence.

Old-style hardware stores pay homage to the concept that there is a solution to every problem. A leaking faucet need not be replaced; it can be repaired. A crack in an ancient driveway does not mean the entire concrete pad must be jack-hammered and replaced; a tube of crack filler can give an entire new lifetime to that slab of cement. The flickering fluorescent light does not deserve to be ripped off the ceiling and deposited in a landfill; a new ballast can make the beast new and bright again. A rusted metal table need not be carted to the junkyard; a steel wire brush affixed to an electric drill, a little elbow grease, and a couple of cans of spray paint can give new life to it. Thousands of problems facing the homeowner or the apartment dweller or the farmer or rancher can be magically transformed into solutions by the magical qualities of an old-style hardware store. At the same time, the person who takes advantage of what’s there can nurture pride in herself by giving life to objects that might have been at death’s door.

So, after my three minute errand was completed, I made love to that hardware store, treating its aisles and their bounty as my long-lost mistress, laden with thrilling fruits. I figuratively caressed every inch of the place, first with my eyes and then, occasionally, with my fingers.

I touched broad, flat masonry nails and heavy-duty pulleys. I stroked saws and wrenches and axes whose sharp blades reflected and refracted light like prisms. Electrical supplies mesmerized me as I gazed down an aisle dedicated to wire and the devices dependent on it for life and power.

A fully-stocked hardware store is an anachronism today. Big box stores and convenience stores and grocery stores sell cheap imitations of quality tools and fasteners and replacement parts for leaf blowers and chain saws and fluorescent bulb ballasts. Nothing can match a big, crowded hardware store for taking me back to my childhood. Wandering the aisles of cavernous stores that stocked everything one could ever need, I was certain I could find food in the hardware stores I visited, if only I looked long enough.

It’s not just the stuff one finds in old-style hardware stores. It’s the attitudes of the people who love to work in them. They pride themselves on being generalists, jacks-of-all-trades who can offer advice and counsel on everything from the proper size bolts to repair lawnmowers to techniques for cutting perfect forty-five degree angles in elaborate pieces of ceiling trim and cabinet mill work.  No one asks me to wait while they find the mill work specialist or the lighting expert to answer my questions; they know their store like the backs of their hands and they know where every washer and piece of screen mesh resides.

Even though I don’t know how to use most of what I see in an old-fashioned hardware store—even though my skill-set in home improvement and maintenance has been left to grow moldy—even so, I love seeing what I experience in old hardware stores.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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