If you are fortunate enough, you’ve spent some time in a small hardware store. You know, the kind of place that smells of paint and moth balls, 3-in-One Oil and lawn fertilizer. The store may have been old enough to bring back pleasant memories of the creak of hardwood floors, screen door advertising, the glow of dusty 60-watt lightbulbs, and soft-spoken conversations about copper fittings, water heaters and mouse traps. They were, and still are, truly American institutions.
It’s no secret that the small-time, small town hardware store — with some exceptions — is becoming a thing of the past. It seems as though, not so long ago, every burg, business district and borough touted a locally owned hardware store. That’s not the case any longer, and we are the poorer for it.
In her wonderful poem, “Ode to Hardware,” Barbara Hamby bemoans its passing, as well as the people who ran them.
“I don’t know what it is about hardware stores that I love, but I do love them. It may have started when I began to be interested in gardening. I bought my first watering can at a hardware store. But I love to look at all those bins of nails and wonder what they’re meant to do. There’s also the attraction to small glittering things. My husband says I’m a magpie, and my poems are certainly made up of small, shiny images,” Hamby says.
Not that many years ago, there were so many hardware stores within a few miles of our house that I could stop by one no matter what town I happened to be driving through. Always I could count on someone in an embroidered vest or pocket-protected work shirt, stocking in some quiet aisle, who could dispense advice on whatever old mechanical or plumbing mess I had with me, usually wrapped in a shop rag.
“Yeah, I’ve seen that before. I think we may have one left in the back,” I’ve heard more than once.
Two local hardware stores near me still breathe: Ste-Mar Hardware on Main Street in Clinton, and G& M Ace Hardware on North Highway 41 in Rockville. The first is the domain of Marty Shortridge, and has been since he was “…barely able to reach the cash register.” The second is managed by Joel Hall, who, years ago, sat in my classroom, but who can now teach me a thing or two about fittings, fuses, or fasteners. As he told me, “One thing I learned is that people don’t come into a hardware store to shop or browse; they have a specific need…”
At one time, Clinton had a thriving downtown district that included several hardware stores; struggling like so many other small towns, it has managed to keep Ste-Mar going in an age when bigger box stores see booming popularity. There are, however, a good many things the latter can’t do.
“What sets us apart from the other stores is personal knowledge of the product we sell. I personally know every product that I sell, what it does, what it doesn’t do, even when it will probably break. I know a lot about electrical and plumbing, am certified in HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), am a locksmith, and have done just about everything in housing and remodeling. I know what to do and what not to do, because every day I have people ask my opinion and do just the opposite,” Shortridge said as he ate lunch behind his cluttered counter.
Ste-Mar has been at its present address since 1960; Shortridge’s parents bought out Harlan’s Hardware Store on Ninth Street and moved it to Main about a week before Marty was born. He’s been in the old building in some capacity nearly every day since.
Hall says that G&M Ace Hardware was originally opened by Bill Becker and Gary Nicola and has been in operation since 1996 in the same location it sits on today. In 2012, Mike Sasin took ownership, and although it doesn’t have the archaic feel of an old-time store — the creaking wood floors are tiled concrete there — Joel says the service his store offers is anything but big business.
“One appeal to my job is that every day is different,” Hall adds. “I enjoy helping people with any need they may have, from fixing a broken water line to loading mulch for their landscape. The camaraderie with customers is one of the favorite aspects that keeps me wanting to go to work every day.”
Hall started working at Ace as a part-timer while a junior in high school. He’s now in a leadership role at the store and says he’s “…proudly been helping the community for 20 years.”
When it comes to the inevitable question as to why such a valuable business is becoming extinct in an America that is less “do-it-yourself” with each passing generation, both men agree: online shopping, home delivery, and competition from big chain stores are hurting hardware stores.
“I think people in our community take pride in buying from their local hometown hardware store,” Hall says. Both he and Shortridge mention that among their services are expert key cutting, pipe cutting and threading, and, of course, taking the time to dispense advice. “I remind people to use their phone and take a photo of what they are dealing with,” Hall says. “I can help them better that way.” He also says his store will assemble anything that is purchased there, flares tubing, cuts glass, and rents a lot of what people don’t own.
As she closes her poem, Hamby bemoans what we might never see much of again: the service and the people those old hardware stores still invoke:
“I want angels called Lem, Nelson, Rodney, and Cletis gathered
around a bin of nails, their silence like hosannahs,
hallelujahs, amens swelling from cinderblock cathedrals
drowning our cries of Bigger, faster, more, more, more.”