We recently learned that the old-fashioned hardware store in our nearest little town is closing. It’s “aged out, ” I’m afraid, as countless suburbanites in the housing developments ringing the town go to one of the big box stores or buy what they need online. Most are too young to remember the curious pleasure of a “vintage” hardware store. This one store boasts a century of family ownership and good citizenship. You can’t buy that in a big box.
The store we’re losing, though remarkably well stocked, is small enough to get through in five minutes. Any clerk would not only help you to find what you need, but also offer sound counsel even if you’re there for a single nail—which I truly was one day… though I bought three just in case. That three-nail purchase was treated with as much respect as any more expensive one.
My father was gone during the work week for much of my childhood. Saturday mornings were errand days, and I usually got to tag along. The hardware store—Daddy’s preferred was “Joe, The Motorist’s Friend” in Harrisburg, PA— was a special treat, perhaps because to a child the mix on the shelf seemed so mysterious: from motor oil to hammers, from brooms and Pyrex bowls to toy trains and tires, from onion sets to cleanser. And there was that distinctive, oily, rubbery scent…
When the kids were babies, main street in the little town where we lived was lined with locally owned family businesses. The shining jewels on Main Street in Clarks Summit, PA, were Davis Variety Store, Keen’s Rexall Pharmacy, and Bunnell’s Hardware, all right in a convenient row. Buy something in any of these stores twice and everyone behind the counter would recognize you next time and call you by name. And coo over your babies. Oh, how I loved them, and how I wish I could re-create that atmosphere today, even for a week. Every encounter was personal, polite, helpful. You got what you needed—nothing less, and rarely nothing more—unless you count the market value of being treated so well.
This old style of shopping is still possible in some parts of the US, where big box stores are sparse. Northern New England, for example. We love visiting our favorite general stores when we’re there. Our New England family introduced us to Dan and Whit’s in Norwich, VT, whose slogan is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,” the Newbury Village Store, where we’ve had many a fine sandwich, and The Oquossoc Grocery just outside of Rangeley, ME., where you should sample the “store cheese” that gets better and better as it sits under the glass dome on the counter.
I have beautiful memories of the pleasures of patronizing all of those great small stores. Our local hardware store, once its doors close forever, will become another on the long list. Most of us old you-know-whats wouldn’t want to trade the conveniences of life in 2020, nor would we ever give up the great medical and scientific advances of the last 50 years. But I would freely relinquish malls, buying online, and big box stores for the joy of old-fashioned, person-to-person shopping.
The older I grow, the easier it is to submit to the “good old days” mentality that so many younger people, without benefit of a long backward view, treat with disdain. I must have done that as an adolescent know-it-all myself. It would be a stretch to characterize my parents’ stories of growing up as mill-town immigrant children, of the hardships of influenza, Depression, and World War II, as “good old days,” but I know there were many aspects of their early lives that they loved and longed for. That tendency to look backward—with rose-colored glasses—is more than the recognition that something isn’t good, or better, just because it’s big, bold, shiny, and new. But it’s also a reaction to the losses in life that accumulate as we grow older. Backward or forward, good old days or not, it’s important to remember that joy, like those fledgling snow drops, crocuses, and daffodils, can spring up anywhere, even under the harshest, most unforgiving circumstances. It’s those joyful moments, amid the odd mix of the hardware store, that set us to yearning.