I was nine years old, my kid brother and I were tossing the baseball in the back yard on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Traipsing around the corner of the house from whichever project he was toiling with, my father called to us, “get in the truck you two, I have to run to the hardware store.” Minutes later we’d be in the back of his Chevy, my old man’s hands covered with dust and caulk gripping the wheel as we crossed the state line into Connecticut bound for Meeker’s Hardware, just off of Main Street in Danbury. Occasionally I would fight the good fight, questioning why it was necessary to voyage the whopping ten extra minutes to Danbury when there was a perfectly suitable hardware store right here in town. “Because I know he’ll have what I need” my father would utter, rendering my squabbling futile.
Built in 1883, an excellent example of the Classical Revival architectural style, the building was a two-story red brick structure pulled straight from a Norman Rockwell painting. Walking through the front door was like voyaging into a bygone era. The wide, thick planks of the old wooden floors creaked with every step. The narrow aisles filled with both familiar tools and peculiar devices made of seemingly every material imaginable. Screws and nails, knobs and dials, tubes and hoses, hundreds upon thousands of instruments, trinkets, and gadgets, the purpose of which was left to wander the corridors of my imagination. On the counter sat an enormous mechanical cash register that could very well have been built by James Ritty himself. Behind the contraption always sat Mr. Meeker, whom I guessed to be in his seventies. He always wore a welcoming smile and had a nickel at the ready for any child that wished to operate the old antique vending machine, which was unlike any I had seen before or since. Though I would never have revealed it, I secretly cherished our Saturday afternoon excursions to Meeker’s. The building had an arcane quality, as though I could somehow sense even then its ephemerality.
I am now thirty-five years old and have two children of my own. To them, the hardware store has become synonymous with an enormous rectangular structure now referred to as a home-improvement center. Here you can find everything from giant inflatable snow globes intended to decorate your lawn during the holidays, to a high-efficiency washer and dryer set, and everything inbetween. What these behemoths possess in the way of convenience and variety, they lack in personality and, in my humble opinion, character. It isn’t my intention to slight these establishments; they provide much-needed jobs. I have on more than one occasion allowed practicability to overrule my idealist convictions and shopped at the larger retailers because of the economy-of-scale prices that they offer, prices that just aren’t realistic for many small businesses.
One is still able to walk down Main Street and find thriving small businesses in small towns. Hopefully, this will never change. However all too often these firms are sandwiched between the whitewashed windows of now vacant Five-andDimes, bakeries, or pharmacies that were no longer able to hold their own against the competition. They have become the relics of a simpler time.
Whenever you next find yourself inside one of the big chain stores looking for a box of nails or comparing paint swatches underneath the unforgiving fluorescent lights, maybe take a moment and try to remember your hometown hardware store, the one that your dad would drag you kicking and screaming to on a Saturday afternoon. I do. I think of Mr. Meeker sitting behind that old cash register, winking as he handed me a nickel to buy some peanuts or a piece of bubble gum from his equally old vending machines. I remember the creaky wooden floors and the strange and wonderful contraptions hanging floor to ceiling. I picture that red brick building with white lettering painted on the side, still dignifiedly standing right off of Main Street just as it has for five generations, now empty, all it’s mysteries run out.
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