Wednesday, April 22, 2015

And Now For Something Completely Different

I'm going to wax nostalgic here for a bit, so move on if you don't want to hear an old guy sobbing in his beer. If you choose to indulge me, read on:

I went to the local hardware store today and found it was closed - no signs, just brown cardboard covering the windows. I suddenly got all weepy and felt a little bit guilty. Let me explain. This was an old fashioned, real life hardware store at Spicewood Springs and 183. I don't know how long it had been there, but walking inside was entering a time warp. They sold denim overalls, fertilizer, guns and ammunition, water heater elements, brass pipe fittings, chain and hose of all sizes cut to whatever length you needed, paint and stain, hand tools and wheelbarrows. They had walls of nuts, bolts, and washers of all sizes in little yellow bins and you could buy just one if that's all you wanted. Assortments of O rings and the odd sized furnace filters you couldn't find anywhere else. 

The guys who worked there were old and a bit cranky, but they knew what they had and where it was stashed and could figure out from your description what you were trying to accomplish and how to jerry-rig bits and pieces from all over the store to get it done. And their hands! Gnarly and rough, one guy was missing a finger or two, but you knew these were guys who built stuff!

They had a mechanical cash register and seemed to deal mostly in cash - credit cards took a lot of head scratching and a very old dial-up terminal. But it was ok because they knew how to make change and had the most amazing assortment of small brown paper bags to hold precisely the two bolts and three washers you were buying.

But the thing that took me back was the smell, a sweet aroma of leather, rubber, cosmolene, tobacco, steel, paint, 3 in 1 Oil, and a thousand other hardware store smells. Oh and maybe a little sweat, too. That hardware store perfume is what took me back to some special times.

On Saturdays around our house, there were chores and repairs to be done. Often Dad would load my brothers and me into the family station wagon and head to the hardware store for some odd bits to repair whatever we had broken that week. To me that hardware store was wonderland. They had a small hobby shop section where I could see all the parts for the world's best model airplane I was planning to build: the balsa wood and tissue paper Ringmaster kit, McCoy Red Head .35 gas motor, wooden or nylon Top Flight propellers, glue and paint and a thousand other specialized model airplane parts. I had calculated exactly how many lawns I'd need to mow to pay for each precious component, but never seemed to actually get there.

And the smell in that boyhood hardware store sixty years ago was the aroma that struck me whenever I entered the one on Spicewood Springs. I was usually going there for some obscure bit for one of my electric car projects that I knew they'd have. Suddenly I'm that little boy again dreaming of the things he'll build someday.

I'm going to miss that store. Sure, the big box stores have so much more, but Lowe's and Home Depot lack the things that made the home town hardware store so special; the ability to buy just one of something for three cents and get change back, the wisdom of the old guys who knew how to build stuff out of old crates and tin, the blissful lack of marketing and product placement. And I don't think they'll ever figure out how to synthesize that authentic hardware store smell. Sorry I never got to say thanks and goodbye.

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