Hamilton, Ontario. The other day I was standing in a cavernous mega-chain hardware store looking for gardening supplies. This was not an easy task because the store, which we can call Triumph of the Drill, had something like 36 aisles, each of which was bisected, making 72 aisles. In addition, there was a full service garage for auto repairs, and an outdoor patio selling mulch and fertilizer, but sadly, no gardening supplies. The complexity of the store was incredible; you’d need a PhD to fully understand it.

The staff at Triumph of the Drill are not much help. As is the norm in retail, the workers are in their teens or early twenties, and they tend to avoid helping the customers. At one point, I was chasing down a young man to ask where a watering pot might be found.

It is normal for middle-class suburbanites like me to complain about help in these places. The ideal is quick, efficient, and convenient; the help is supposed to be obsequious, but fade into the background. It is an impersonal business model and this extends to employment: the workers are paid minimum wage and scheduled as close to forty hours per week as possible without triggering the legally-required full time benefits; they’re fired at will and they are generally treated as interchangeable. Of course, they have no loyalty to Triumph of the Drill. I don’t blame them.

In fact, what’s most noteworthy about these retail stores is how little social interaction there is between customers/workers, and workers/managers. Standing around and jawboning is frowned upon and often impossible. The customers are in a hurry; interactions are supposed to be quick, efficient, and convenient. It’s amazing to think of the entire generation that grew up with this retail world as their model of the public sphere and of capitalism.

For me, a hardware store brings to mind something completely different. My family owned a hardware store in the little town where I was born, a family business established by my grandfather and his brother Jack after the war. For a time, there were only three businesses in that town: the hardware store, a grocery store, and a diner. The three of them not surprisingly became the hubs of social life.

People stood around and “jawboned”. I remember, as a child, staring up at these pudgy middle-aged men in the sawdusty back room of the store, all of them drinking coffee and commiserating about the issues of the day, while endless cigarettes smoldered in a communal ashtray between them. Husbands, local builders, friends of the family, they often whiled away entire mornings this way. It was not quick, efficient, or particularly convenient. But it was human.

This was, for a time, what civic life and business were in that town: face to face, deeply personal, and slow-cooked. These men worked odd jobs for each other, met at Lion’s Club socials, visited on holidays, and wasted a lot of time together. To my knowledge, there was never a single item shoplifted from that store. The kid who worked at the store became the man who worked at the store, and then the owner. Even after our family turned it over to him, he kept our name on the sign.

The town changed around the time I went through puberty, and just as painfully. People who worked for the tech companies an hour away started moving in en masse. With them came a wave of strip malls and condos. Fly-by-night real estate developers found that county government was obsequious, but faded into the background. The little hardware store was soon barricaded in by highways, interchanges, chain stores, strip malls, and cloverleaves. The bank across the street is now a porn shop.

The newcomers did not want to jawbone; they wanted the staff to shut the hell up and get them their damned nails. The store couldn’t compete with the large mega chains that could get bulk deals from suppliers. Everything was more expensive at the little hardware store. The local customers gradually died off and were not replaced. The landlord raised the rent until they were forced to move to a very small space in a local strip mall, and then he tore down the oldest building in the town for a chain theme restaurant. Adding insult to injury, the local paper ran an article marking the passing of “the old 7-11” nearby. But, hey, what can you do? You can’t stop progress, as the people who benefit from it are wont to tell us.

It’s impossible for me to think about the “republic” of old hardware store men in terms of politics. Certainly, their culture was traditional, even a bit old-fashioned, conservative, quietly religious, and all of them voted Republican. They had no cultural affiliation with left wing party politics. Ultimately, while the county Republicans (who controlled local politics at that time,) might have issued some kind statements about the salt of the earth common people who had built the town, the politicians were glad to see these people go. The box stores employ more people and generate more wealth, so why should anyone shed a tear over a bunch of deadbeats in a mom & pop store?

Perhaps even I can’t. The hardware store provided a lot of people with very nice lives and then faded quietly away. The family friend and owner eventually died, and the store died with him.

I now live in another town dominated by these box stores. I find, though, that the social life in this town is quick, efficient, and convenient. But without jawboning; that is, without a direct, face-to-face sense of the other people we are connected to; it is less geared towards human life, which is not quick, efficient, or convenient; at least, not when it’s worth taking part in. It’s like Triumph of the Drill; after a while, you feel a bit superfluous there. In most regards, you are interchangeable and insignificant. The young people I meet couldn’t care less about their society. I can’t blame them.

21 COMMENTS

  1. For all of you who miss the ma and pa hardware store, please visit Lisbon, Ohio. The Bye and Bye Hardware Store is located just down the street from the county courthouse and has been at the same place since the 1870’s I believe when old-man Bye first opened the store. There you get a “can I hep ya!” when you come through the door and a free bag of popcorn (you don’t have to buy anything.)
    You can also pick a fight with either the Democrats or Republicans depending on who’s holding power, find out about who’s shagging who over at the courthouse (it’s usually the citizens gettin’ shagged), and find out the latest, non-published news.
    Lisbon, is somewhat unique. It’s holding its own due to the courthouse and gummint (welfare, agriculture, ect) business that’s centered there. And, though innovative thinkers have put a couple of mini-malls up on the hill just outta town, they really haven’t killed Lisbon, at least in toto!
    And, lest we forget, Lisbon is the second oldest town in Ohio (Marrietta’s NO. 1) and it was from its environs in July of 1863 that forty or so brave men, under the command of Capt. Burbick and pulling a Revolutionary nine pounder, marched south on the Hephner Hollow Road to stop the intrepid and heroic Confederate raider, John Hunt Morgan, from laying siege to the village.

  2. Without meaning to overgeneralize, I think it worthy to note, that, by and large, the competence one finds at the Triumph of the Drill is lacking, too. At Bye and Bye, I’d guess that when you hear “Can I help ya?, chances are that you’re going to get actual help — not just, “Those are in aisle four”, but, “Well, yes, that is the cheaper product, but if you’re looking to do X, Y, and Z, and to make it last, then you really want to shell out the extra couple of bucks for this — and let me show you how it’s used properly.”

    When you’re paying minimum wage to young punks who aren’t social, you’re getting neither jawboning nor knowledge, but you’re getting “freedom” from being a zoon politikon.

  3. Nathan,”zoon politikon,” you’ve made my day!
    And, hopefully the Rt. Rev. D.W. Sabinski will wade in with a measure of wit and wisdom!

  4. Our local hardware store first opened it’s door to locals, in the 1890’s. It is still run by the same family. the rituals of the seasons flow in and out of it’s doors: chicks, duckling, turkey poults, in spring, beekeeping supplies, tools, and amazing supply of hardware and tools, electrical needs, a small engine repair shop, chicken coops, farm and livestock supplies, paint etc, farm clothing and boots, wood stoves, plant nursery, and garden supplies, nails and screws and ranks of various hardware, milking stands, landscape stone, watering troughs, fencing supplies for farms, local fruit and produce in the fall. A wondrous place, where ANYTHING is possible to find. And to make it complete, the same staff has been employed there forever. And they like to “jawbone”. Which by the way, I consider necessary in such an environment, anyhow. All young boys should have to visit such a place several times while young. You can learn much in such a place. I mentioned to the clerk, checking out yesterday, that if this place ever closed, the whole county would go into deep grief, and gnashing of teeth. there are Lowes, tec, in nearby towns, but it easily competes with them by it’s flexibility, diversity of products, and sheer local loyalty. blessed place.

  5. The store in Lisbon is worthy of the name.

    It used to be that the Lehman Hardware Store in Kidron, Ohio was a nice place. But now it has been turned into a touristy “Amish” sideshow with curiosities like gasoline-powered washing machines. Very Amish indeed, but hardly simple or beautiful. More like a crass boxstore nowadays (with 4 color regional guides to other tourist traps) that sells heated buggies and cast iron cookware, alongside the ever-popular trampolines, sneakers and crates of marshmallow fluff.

    I used to visit my grandparents in Kidron, who published the weekly news from a hot lead linotype, blocked by hand. Now, the news is printed on offset, if it’s printed at all, somewhere else (in Dalton, Orrville or Wooster).

    Now I live near a little Pittsburgh valley town called Turtle Creek. The hardware store there, happily, is still worthy of the name. It has creaky wooden floors, and from ceiling to floor are shelves crammed with open dusty boxes of screws and bolts, washers and latches. The taciturn gent behind the dark oak counter knows everything there. He looks up from the paper when you come in the side door off the street, asks you what you need, and gets it (along with the next sizes up and down) within a minute.

    He knows his stuff. The obscure bolt I went in for I was prepared to pay two dollars for. He took fifteen cents.

    Best of all, the old store in Turtle Creek has wisdom, and a smell. Old wood, shellac and metal, a little oil and leather, the rustling of newspaper, the banging of the streetside door, the creaking of wood.

    That’s a hardware store where you can talk. Still.

  6. I spent this past summer doing manual labor around my parent’s house in suburban Cincinnati. I noticed that I would almost instinctively head for Home Depot or Lowe’s when I needed another bucket of paint or more mulch. There is, however, a little hardware store in the small town area down the road. In suburban culture, it is almost counter-intuitive to head to the local place rather than the big-box store.

  7. Bob, I’m glad to be of service.

    Anecdotally, I’ll note that even on strictly economic terms, bigger ain’t always better. My parents recently had the living (read: “television-watching”) and dining rooms painted by a contractor. This spurred some d.i.y. painting elsewhere in the house. My mother went with the exclusively at-Lowe’s Valspar for trim in the kitchen, while I, painting over the atrocious Nineteen-seventies wood paneling a lovely green that complements the countertops, procured a gallon of Kurfees (now Gray Seal) from the local lumberyard, owned by my second-cousin.

    (A wonderful little digression: Kurfees/Gray Seal is produced by Progress Paint, an employee-owned company that sells its product exclusively through independent lumber yards, hardware and paint stores, and building-supply centers: No big-box chains, no mega-discounters, and no company stores.)

    I’m no paint expert, but I’ll happily vouch for Kurfees: One gallon cost me about twenty-nine bucks, little more than the Valspar from the allegedly cheaper Triumph of the Drill, if at all, and it both covers better and is paint-tape resistant, whereas the long-dried Valspar paint peeled right off time and again.

    I’m just sayin’.

  8. Thanks to everyone for the warm welcome. I should note that I grew up in rural/no-longer-rural Virginia, which I’m describing in this post, but I eventually landed in upstate New York and then Ontario for very quotidian reasons: I fell in love with a Canadian and married her. But, the conditions I described held true in rural Virginia, Maryland, upstate New York and Ontario- different permutations of the same elements: video store, mega Mart, mega hardware store, mega grocery store, et cetera. Here the giant hardware store is usually a Canadian Tire, but I was definitely thinking of Lowe’s too, and True Value for that matter.

    Nathan makes a good point about competency. It occurred to me when I was in a Lowe’s this weekend that the majority of the staff there was newly-hired, and that this had been the case every time I’ve ever visited a Lowe’s. Indeed, at our family’s hardware store, they usually knew what people needed and they quite often took them in the back and showed them how to use the tools on a large bench they had set up for that purpose. If I remember correctly, they also copied keys for free for the regulars.

    Incidentally, in that picture, the hardware store is to the right, the drug store is in the middle, and the town post office was to the left. When I was about five years old, my “job” in the hardware store was to bring them cups of coffee from the pot in the back. In return, I would get enough change to go to the drug store and get a milkshake.

  9. Rufus, I am from Virginia (though born in Ohio) and it is as you described. The big boxes have crushed everything and that’s depressing. The tools are cheap but generally crap and the help doesn’t usually know a thing about them. I guess that’s something else nice about old hardware stores (like I remember from my youth) – the people running them knew the merchandise and how to use it. Also they were all parts of the community – sponsoring Little League teams and so on. Lowe’s, Home Depot, etc. are utterly impersonal and placeless.

    Also agree with John, “Triumph of the Drill” is brilliant.

  10. We still have a small hardware store and an independent feed store. The big boxes are 30 minutes or more away. My wife knows a trip to the feed or hardware store 2 miles from the homestead will more often than not be long-winded. We talk politics and business and farming. Its not just talk. The livlihood of many of the folks who stop and talk depend on these centers of the community. We get to know who can help with what and who we can help. Our small town needs more revival, but it still has life, but a low enough population that the big boxes will stay away for at least a bit longer as “real” jobs are almost an hour away. Thank God for small blessings!

  11. I’m surprised that any hardware stores are still competitive these days, as this implies that people still understand how to fix things themselves and are willing to do so.

  12. You’ve touched a raw nerve with this post – our wonderful local hardware store closed two years ago – to be replaced by yet another bank. I now have to drive a half hour to the big box plus wonder through its cavernous aisles for another half hour. Not to mention – I get no local gossip there.

  13. I live in Athens GA, and there are two good family owned hardware stores in town. One is directly across the street from a mega hardware store. The other day, I needed some wheel bolts for my lawnmower. The family owned store owner didn’t have exactly what I was looking for, but searched around his store until he found what would work. It was service that would never be found in the store across the street.

    On another note, the lack of social interaction today seems to be the goal of many people. I recently had to get a new cell phone, something I held off getting in the first place for as long as I could. This new phone has a computer like keyboard on it to make text messaging easier. It is just another way for people to avoid actual real human to human contact. They actaully pay a monthly fee, just to be able to text, instead of talk. Ideally, we would still have jawboning depots where people actually talk face to face, instead of through text messages, email, or even a phone call. ACtual interaction is what reminds us to love our neigbors, and what keeps us human.

  14. John & Steve: Thanks- I was either going to go with that or “Triumph of the Grill”.

    Jim C.: “Its not just talk. The livelihood of many of the folks who stop and talk depend on these centers of the community.”

    That’s how I remember it- as the public sphere in that town, but also how people “networked”. Another thing was that the men who hung out there also got together fairly regularly for Lions Club picnics and dinners. Whenever my grandparents needed to hire anyone for just about anything, they went with people they knew from those places. This went for everything from accountants and real estate agents to plumbers and carpenters. I’ve often wondered if the class divide in the US would be bridged a bit more if there were more civic organizations where a well-to-do real estate agent could sit down and socialize with a struggling plumber, for example; or, conversely, if the decline of that sort of civic engagement has been eating away at social mobility.

  15. Rufus, I am currently on a little visit to your hometown area. I grew up around here, too, and it baffles me that Rt. 50 is a 3-4 lane double highway wallpapered with gigantic chain stores. At this moment, I’m sitting in a house in South Riding. Anyone who learned to drive around here and then went away for a while might rightly ask a question such as, “Where the f@)# is South Riding?!?” Chantilly has outriggers now. But it does not have a place where people hang out and shoot the breeze.

    Probably most alarming about all this is that there are lots and lots of people who cannot fathom WHY direct personal connections of the kind you describe are good, and why it’s damaging to eliminate them. Because automated gas pumps ARE more convenient…

  16. Holly: That picture was taken near the intersection of routes 28 and 29. Incredibly, if you include the entire image, there is nothing else there, aside from the store and, in the distance, the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I was a child in the 70s it was the same. For a very bitter laugh, you might want to drive past that cloverleaf today.

    At the time the picture was taken, the town population was less than 500. In 1980, it was 7,473. In 1990: 26,585. In 2007: 50,414.

    JCW: Not to give away too much, but the store I had in mind prints their own “money”. Although, I’ve recently been to “the first Lowe’s in Canada” and man is it worse!

    Incidentally, I don’t know if you’ve seen the Historical Hamilton site, but it’s a really incredible guide to the beautiful architecture that still exists in Hamilton. http://historicalhamilton.com/

  17. Rufus,

    I’ve been to that Historical Hamilton site before and it is rather lovely. I’m a songwriter and my next record, ‘The City Fell By Silence’, will contain songs about Hamilton’s history and its connection to our city’s present sorrow and joy. It’s amazing how history impinges on everything, eh?

    I know the store you mean and I, too, have to fight the impulse not ‘just to go there’ instead of taking the time to find a good, local hardware store. I haven’t the facility with tools that my father possesses, but it is something I am eager to learn.

    You’re right: Lowe’s is worse. Thanks again for a splendid article; keep well.

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