The rumor proved all too bitterly true: Park’s Hardware, a downtown institution of Orono, Maine, since 1898, would be closing.
Word spread quickly. Locals cajoled, cross-examined, and pleaded with Lin, the owner of the store, to no avail. Running a small, local, family-owned hardware business was no longer a profitmaker. The town’s affection for Park’s Hardware was just not enough to allow it to prevail against the giant warehouse stores that loomed, discount-laden, down the road in Bangor.
I was one member of the milling masses that began to filter through Park’s as, day by day, the wax lettering on the front window changed from “20% OFF EVERYTHING” to “30%,” “40%,” and on and on, like the death of a thousand cuts until the only things left were the light sockets and doorknobs.
It’s a difficult thing to see a hardware store go. A hardware store is special because it sells the things that allow us to indulge our tinkering habits, can-do-it-ness, and creativity, and in the process improve our immediate surroundings to suit our tastes. There are few things more satisfying than a new coat of paint on a weary wall, or a new lock set requiring only the knowledge of how to spin a screwdriver. From such a small investment of cash and time, a hardware store affords one a wholesale return of satisfaction.
The cynic might argue that one can accomplish the same end by shopping at the big-box warehouses whose footprints are measured not in square feet, but acres. Well, maybe sometimes, but certainly not always. And the likelihood of feeling forsaken in such a wasteland is high.
I recall the time I was rummaging in one of the aisles of a Bangor hardware fortress for a wireless door chime that Park’s didn’t carry. I found the thing, but didn’t understand the following gloss on the package: “Red light indicates condition of battery.” I spotted a clerk in a brightly colored apron.
“Excuse me,” I said, holding the item out, “I can’t seem to find the red light.” The man took the package, examined it, and, plopping it back in my hand, said, “Neither can I,” before he walked away.
I contrast this experience with one I routinely had at Park’s, in which I would walk into the store holding a pile of arcane-looking metal and plastic pieces in my cupped hands.
“Lin,” I’d plead as I held out the offering before him, “can you ... please ... I don’t know ... do you think…?” And quicker than one could say, “little red light,” Lin would spring into action and together we’d voyage off into one of the eclectic recesses of the store to mix and match and measure until the solution precipitated before my eyes like a genie emerging from a lamp.
Was it more expensive to shop at Park’s as opposed to a warehouse? In one way, yes – if I intended to buy a big-ticket item like a snowblower or chain saw. But otherwise, no: I could buy a single screw at Park’s, and have it lovingly deposited in a little bag, for a nickel – no charge for the accompanying pleasant conversation.
At a warehouse I had no choice but to buy a box of a hundred screws, and, if I were fortunate, receive at the cash register the stock admonition: “Have a nice day.”
But I don’t want to be directed to have a nice day. Nor do I want a box of a hundred screws when all I need is one, nor told to wait because an “associate” would be with me shortly.
I just want to know the location of the little red light, and now that Park’s is gone, I realize that I never will.