by the Night Writer
I am not a particularly handy man when it comes to fixing things. In fact, I’ve often said of myself that I can do in half-a-day what it takes two men working all-day to undo. Nevertheless, I love going into old-timey hardware stores. There’s something about the faded floors, jumbled shelves and the scent of grease, oil, wood, copper and sweat that is hard-wired (or hard-wared) into my soul and stirs my imagination. The sight of rows of tools and implements made to fit the hand just make me feel useful and like I want to start some kind of project, even though I may only be able to tell you the true function of a mere fraction of these tools. For some reason I never feel this way when I go to Lowe’s or Home Depot, even though most of my “home improvement” shopping is done at these big box stores. Perhaps it’s because somewhere along the line “home improvement centers” replaced “hardware stores”.
I thought about this yesterday after reading that my local hardware store, Langula’s, is closing after 96 years and three-generations of being in business. I first wandered into Langula’s some 10 years or so ago because I needed my mower blades sharpened and they were the only place around that still did that on site, while you waited. The owner of the shop, Gary, usually did the sharpening himself, ensconced in his grungy workshop at the back of the store where you had to step down into an area delineated by the original foundations of his grandparent’s store. Gary’s a phlegmatic guy, not much of a talker, but he can find parts and tell you how to use them. Sometimes I’d watch as he’d run the blades along the grinder in a shower of yellow sparks but usually I’d wander around the main part of the store, hefting this tool or running my hands over that piece of equipment. Somehow it all reminded me of when I was a boy and my grandfather would take me around with him when he’d go to visit his many friends who were fuel oil jobbers and mechanics. I remember their twill work pants, Eisenhower jackets and their billed caps with the ear-flaps on the side … and always the smell of petroleum. Okay, it wasn’t frankincense, but these men with their look and jargon seemed to me to be part of some esoteric priesthood of arcane knowledge.
If not a priesthood, it was certainly at least a club. My grandfather would tell me stories of a hardware store in his home town that was run by a couple of friends, one of whom had some talent as an artist. The men in town would congregate at the hardware store and drink coffee from mugs hand-painted for each man by the owner, usually in a risque manner. The men always left their cups in the back of the store, never to be seen by the casual public and definitely never by the wives or women-folk.
Another old hardware store that did things its own way was on Payne Avenue when I lived on the east side of St. Paul. It looked as if it could have been the model for a Norman Rockwell calendar. Hell, I think it probably still had a Norman Rockwell calendar on the wall from 1957. The aisles were narrow and things stacked on the upper shelves seemed to lean over my head like tree branches in an arbor, while the hardwood floor running down each aisle was worn into a smooth trench by generations of work-boots shuffling along, making it all feel as if I was in a tunnel. The haphazard clutter of odds and ends led me to suggest to the clerk helping me that it must be fun to do the annual inventory. “Never happens,” he replied. “When the old man dies, they’re just going to burn the place down and start over.”
Langula’s doesn’t have quite as much “character” as that place, and Gary never offered me a customized coffee mug, but the store is still a true, funky, living artifact of another time, complete with a shop cat that lounges about the place and often naps on the counter next to the cash register. Whenever I’d take a deep breath it seemed as if I could still smell the ghosts in their work-clothes. My grandfather and his friends all passed on long ago and the hardware stores they would have felt at home in are dying out, too. After nearly 100 years in the same location, this coming weekend will likely be the last for Langula’s.
I plan to drop in, browse the aisles, breathe deeply. I’m sure they’ve got something there I need.