Hardware, the old-fashioned way

My father is a firm believer that a good hardware store is good for the spirit. I couldn't agree more. There is something about the commingling of wood, metal, adhesives, and assorted doodads that reaffirms - in a world which can sometimes seem doubtful and tentative - that there still exists reassurance that anything is possible.

In my small Maine town, we have a hardware store that has been in business since 1892. Its lived-in ambience lies in the squeak of the oak floor when one enters from the street; in the elderly black Lab whose welcoming lick discriminates against no hand; in the sagging tin ceilings; and in the cross-breeze that passes over the seed bins in March, offering a preemptive whiff of spring while snow still lies about.

Park's Hardware, by some grace, has persisted in its main street storefront despite the arrival of the monolithic home repair warehouses.

Some call it a miracle, but to me the reason is clear, manifested not only in the fact that it is a place where one can still buy a single screw for two cents (instead of a box of 100), but in a scene I witnessed there about a year ago.

A young college student had just moved into her apartment. She approached one of the employees and confided that she couldn't open her one and only closet. "It takes a skeleton key," she lamented. "Now, where am I going to get a skeleton key?"

Without hesitation, the employee stepped past the young woman and opened a flat drawer in an old cabinet. He reached in and grabbed a handful of skeleton keys.

"There were only a few different types," he explained as he placed them in her hand. "Take these and try them. When you find the one that fits, just bring the others back."

She reached for her purse, but the employee signaled her off. "No," he said. "Pay me when you find the key that fits."

"You're kidding," the student said, not realizing that trust was part of the transaction. As she left, a hint of disbelief still lingered on her face.

Such small dramas have little chance of occurring in the warehouses, where it's every man for himself and the job of the hired help is simply to exchange cash for goods, in as expeditious a way as possible. In Park's, by contrast, a purchase often takes the form of a consultation, where a problem is presented ("How do I drill a hole in a brick?") and the employee and customer arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.

The thing is, small, locally owned hardware stores know things. One need only state one's predicament and the wheels of creativity are set in motion. I once walked into Park's with two pieces of plumbing, the opposite ends of a system that stretched for 10 feet under the house.

"How do I get from here," I asked, holding out one piece of metal, "to here?" as I presented the other.

Lin, the owner, looked the parts over. "Hmmm," he pondered, hand to chin; and then his eyes caught fire. We hightailed it to the plumbing section and for the next 20 minutes rummaged through plastic bins of pipe, faucets, junctions, and valves.

"This is fun!" I finally blurted out, like a10-year-old, as a clearly unconventional contraption slowly took shape before my eyes.

"And it'll work," said Lin by way of punctuation.

"That's even funner."

Despite the cramped space (a hardware store worth its salt must be cramped), Lin has judiciously made room for two old chairs where customers can sit while waiting their turn, or simply bide time to observe the passing parade.

One warm summer day I availed myself of this opportunity to sit and watch and listen as people came and went, their needs as personal and unique as they were: a professional carpenter who knew exactly what he wanted; a student looking for a screw for his license plate; an elderly woman wondering how to remove gum from a carpet; and a lady whose request read like a haiku ("Marigold seeds/a large pack/variegated/keep the cats away").

When my father visits from New Jersey, he looks for any justification to go to Park's. A restless do-it-yourselfer by nature, he believes that a good hardware store, in addition to being good for the spirit, is the inveterate tinkerer's natural habitat.

On his last visit, he clucked his tongue at my leaky bathroom faucet. Then he headed to Park's, returning a good while later with a washer, which he dutifully replaced.

"But the other faucet's still leaking," I pointed out. "Why didn't you get two washers?"

Smiling, and with anxious anticipation, he said, "Oh, I intend to. Now I get to go back to the hardware store."

This time I went with him. I mean, why should he have all the fun?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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