In an earlier post I made mention of Old School Mom & Pop style hardware stores and the almost mesmerizing appeal the hold for me. Also the fact that they are a dying breed.
As I mentioned, I spent some of my best childhood years being raised in a hardware store that my Dad owned in a tiny town in Eastern Washington State. This was the culmination of a lifelong dream of his and the start of a lifelong obsession for me.
The store was named Hal’s Hardware for one obvious reason (his name is Harold) and one more subtle reason. His best friend in the world was named Larry, I grew up knowing him as Uncle Larry. They owned a small business together selling Law Enforcement items to agencies in the California Bay area that they named HAL’S Law Enforcement. HAL stood for Harold (which he went by at that time) and Larry. These two men were virtually inseparable. During my early years they were together so much so that I didn’t really understand that I only had one set of parents not two.To me Uncle Larry and Larrylane (Larry’s wife, Elaine, but I always heard Larry and Elaine, I knew who Larry was so obviously Elaine must be Larrylane) were as much a fixture in my life as my own parents. Both Larry and my father wanted out of the city, this was in the mid-70’s so they were not alone. The plan was that my father would buy the store in Washington he had found then Larry and Larrylane (Elaine) would come up at a later time and buy into it as partners, or something like that. Well life took a different course as it often does and Larry decided not to join my father in Washington. This may have been a blessing however as it allowed my Dad the freedom to run the store as he saw fit…and boy did he run it.
He was a natural. This little store with bins full of nails, nuts and bolts, aisles full of everything from tools to dishwashers was a wonderland for me and an extension of my Dad. I was allowed free reign of the store and at a very early age made my presence known. I would tear up and down the aisles pushing my prized Tonka dump truck (a gift from Uncle Larry as he had started driving the full sized versions in the mines of Nevada by that time) skidding around corners and flying past patrons. If you entered that store you better watch your shins. I ran the cash register too. Thankfully, my Dad had hired some of the local high school girls who became known as Hal’s Angels in reference to the popular TV show at the time. They made sure that the proper change was given but for the most part let me run the operation. I counted items for inventory, measured hardware by weight and size for customers, went downstairs to get stuff for my Dad and pretty much made an all around pain in the ass of myself but I sure thought I was being a huge help. This store, my second home, really my primary home as I spent more waking hours there than at my actual house was paradise for me. I loved that place, I still love it. When I think of “the old days” I invariably end up back in that store. I remember how high I thought the ceilings were, how big everything was and my heart fills with the memories.
My Dad was a member of an Independent Hardware Store Owners organization. This was a way for people like my Dad to compete in some ways with the big boys of the time the Ace, True Value and Coast to Coasts of the world. By the time I was 5 my Dad had owned the store for 3 years and had turned it into a thriving little business and integral part of the community. Some analysts from the organization wanted to see what kind of improvements Dad could make to his store so they spent a week checking the operation out. What they learned was that Dad was doing 30 to 40% more business than he should have been doing. They basically told Dad to sell that store and buy a bigger one. They agreed with me, He was a natural. So, up for sale the store went and a deal was struck for a larger store in a bigger town (still tiny mind you) back in our home state of California. But just barely California we’re talking extreme North Eastern California. My father reached an agreement that he would run the store as the manager for a year and at then at the end of the year he would purchase it as the owner was set to retire and his son, at the time showed no interest in it. Sadly my father was the victim of his own success, he ran the store so well and started turning such a nice profit that the owner decided to hang on to it for another year. That turned into yet another and by this time my Dad had had enough. He left the business, never to own another hardware store. By the time he got over the hurt of the situation and the desire to own a store returned the Home Depots and big stores had started to crowd out the neighborhood stores.
That whole story was to explain to you how deep rooted my love for these little nuggets of Americana are embedded in my psyche. As the world has sped up and people have removed themselves more and more from the communities around them, these small little stores have fallen by the wayside. It’s not just hardware stores mind you, it’s the 5 & Dimes, the independent clothing stores and family stores of all kinds. Sadly I completely understand that most people (me included) just can’t spend 15 or 20% more for an item, but oh my what we have lost. The smell of the store (did you know, in these little stores that each aisle has it’s own smell?), the sight of old tools hanging on the walls or a bulletin board out front with the newspaper clipping of the months adds, or the owner sitting behind the counter greeting you by name, offering you a cup of coffee and some conversation not just “do you need help finding anything?”. The sound of an old cash register ringing away and a polite and genuine “thanks Chad see you soon, say hi to Erin for me”. Not a computer monitor asking me if I am ready to pay now and which method would I like to use. I am not trying to live in the past, I understand that life moves on, but to say it moves forward I think might be a bit of a stretch for me.
So if you get a chance and have the choice, stop into a small hardware store sometime. They are still out there. True you might have to look hard to find one, maybe in a small town or out of the way place, but believe me they are worth the time. Do yourself a favor, slow down, take the time to talk to the old man puttering around the store. Chances are he is a wealth of information. Buy nails that you put in a bag and mark the price on the bag. Spend your money on items from a place that has the price marked with stickers on them not scanned by a computer. You might be lighter of wallet but I promise you will be richer of soul. Maybe that is putting too much into shopping at a Hardware store, but you have to start somewhere.