Ways to buy nails
YOU must understand, first, that I'm not wild about shopping. Haberdashers, stationers, gift shops, fish markets, perfumeries, confectioneries - I'm grateful they're there, but I try to keep my distance. For one sort of shop, however, I have a peculiar weakness: that catchall emporium of tools, paints, and kitchen supplies known as the small-town hardware store. My fondness began early, when as a small boy I'd go with my parents to a place rather grandly known as The Mutual Plumbing and Heating Company. Up front it was all light bulbs and lunch pails, candles and clothespins and can openers and everything else now called ``housewares.'' But out in the back there were lengths of threaded iron pipe racked beside coils of electrical cable and the green-edged glow of window glass. Up front, the Mutual smelled of plastic and soap; back there, it smelled of cup grease and turpentine, laced now and then with the scent of pine and cedar and the faint oily-iron tang of new nails.Skip to next paragraph
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It's the nails, after all, that make a hardware store. Nowadays, all sorts of stores will sell you hammers and angle irons and little boxes of screws. But only true hardware stores have nails in bulk. In that respect, Mutual was the genuine article. Its gunmetal-gray bins, deep and open-fronted and upward-sloping, held what to my child's eye was a world of nails. There were box nails and common nails, roofing nails and wallboard nails, ring-shanks that you couldn't pull out and 40-penny spikes that you could hardly drive in, delicate finishing nails and double-headed scaffolding nails and square-cut flooring nails and blue-black shingle nails - a universe as varied as humanity itself, and adapted to its thousand needs.
Somewhere in the bins was a kind of short-handled Neptune's trident used for clawing the nails into brown paper bags. You put the bag on the scale hanging from a nearby beam, its metal pan suspended from chains like an upside-down Quaker bonnet. If a clerk were around, he'd mark up the price in grease pencil on the rolled-over bag; if not, they'd trust you to tell them over at the cash register. And if, like me, you were too short to see into the scale-pan, you could always stand on one of the short wooden kegs, labeled clous and fabriqu'e au Canada, that squatted nearby on the worn plank floor.
Mutual moved, and I grew up. But I find I've not outgrown my love of hardware stores. Maybe that's why I like our small Maine town. It's blessed with two such stores - in which, at some point each weekend, I can usually be found.
The uninitiated, no doubt, will ask why one patronizes two such stores. Surely one is enough. And so it is - if all you want to do is buy hardware. These two, however, are more than stores. Each, in its own way, is a kind of window on the world. They're the living embodiments of two entirely opposite philosophies, two polar ways of looking at life.