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.

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.

On the surface, of course, they don't look all that different. The one ``downstreet'' (as they say in these parts) is sandwiched between a toy shop and a grocery store that still delivers, and it's partial to housewares. The other, sprawling out behind an old clapboard house on the edge of the town, turns progressively into a lumberyard with every step you take toward the rear. But both sell the basics: If you're after pie plates or stove bolts, either one will do. And both have charge accounts - which, in the manner of Yankee rurality, are set up when the store owner writes down your name and address and, with a couple of well-placed questions, satisfies himself as to which house you live in.

Then wherein the difference? The evidence lies in the nails - not in what they are (each store carries about the same) but in how they're sold. Downtown, the nails are right under the counter by the cash register. At the other place, the nails are out in the back by themselves.

Outsiders, used to more urban ways, might conclude that this distinction points to a matter of trust - that the downstreet store keeps a more watchful eye on something so eminently portable and pocketable. After months of offhand study, I'm led to a different hypothesis. I think that just as anthropologists distinguish between hunting and gathering societies, so one can distinguish two different clientele for these stores: the hunters and, for want of a better word, the askers.

The lumberyard store caters to the former. Having about it an aura of confident self-sufficiency, it assumes that its patrons will hunt down, unassisted, whatever they're after. It's a place where, all by yourself, you set out to stalk the odd-sized furniture clamp, search out the coil of three-wire 12-gauge cable, and track down the final can of forest green spray enamel. There are clerks, to be sure - affable folks, learned in their trade and timeless in their helpfulness. But they always seem to be helping someone else. It's the kind of store to visit when you know exactly what you want - or when, as often happens, you long for a little quiet space to mull over your options and browse unmolested for something that might come in handy.

Things are not like that downstreet. You can hardly cross the threshold without being greeted - by name, if you've been there often enough. Most things are shelved in the open. But it seems somehow proper to let the clerk show you to the right shelf. It's the kind of store you visit when you don't know enough to know what to ask for - or when, in the long and racking reaches of some recalcitrant basement project, you simply need to commiserate with another understanding heart.

And that, after all, is what shopping is all about. It's not just what you're buying. It's how you're buying it. There are times, for all of us, when even the purchase of a pound of nails is an act of uncertainty - or an admission of failure, or a patient bowing to duty. And then there are times when that same purchase, in the zest of a project well-launched, is a soaring declaration of self-reliance, dominion, and exultation. There's a time for hunting and a time for asking - a time for being left alone, and a time for the comfort of helpfulness. Which is why, I guess, there will always be more than one way to buy nails.

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