Tuesday, March 19, 2013

An Ode To The Neighborhood Hardware Store

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published March 21, 2013] © 2013

This is an ode to our two local hardware stores, Meanley’s and Hammer & Nails, along with my fervent hope that they stay in business forever.  Big-box hardware stores like Home Depot certainly excel at range of merchandise, but there is no substitute for humans who (a) you don’t have to flat-out tackle in the aisle to get them to help you and (b) actually know something.

I’ve written before about my twelve years as a single divorced mom and my efforts at home repair, fondly known at the time as the Single Woman Home Repair School. Basically, if it couldn’t be fixed with picture wire, duct tape, or hair scrunchies (a grossly under-utilized tool if there ever was one), it remained, by financial necessity, broken.
I was also fairly fond of brute force – the old kick-the-radio theory – which fixes far more things than you might think.  For example, thwacking the aerator on my kitchen faucet with a large wooden spoon shaped it up instantly.  And it felt so good.

One long-ago day, I had the good fortune to meet Dale who ran Hammer & Nails Hardware.  He convinced me I could actually repair things that had heretofore been out of my exceedingly limited range:  rewiring lamps, salvaging broken garden hoses, and once, crawling under my house (a nasty rat and spider-filled underworld that is my personal vision of hell) on my stomach and pouring a gallon of sulfuric acid into the clean-out pipe to clear my drains. 
At the time, I suspected that the drain project was Dale’s way of ensuring I never came back, or at least not until I had finished my two years of rehab at the local burn center.  But he was always unfailingly optimistic in my abilities to fix things that he knew I couldn’t afford to hire someone to do for me.

“Oh, you can do it, Inga!” he’d counter to my dubious expression, and give me step-by-step instructions along with critical safety tips.  Goggles, a mask, and protective clothing were de rigueur for the drain project, but profoundly clear on my innate lack of mechanical talent, he often advised a fire extinguisher as well. 

Marrying Olof ultimately (mercifully?) put the Single Woman Home Repair School out of business.  Olof still suspects I married him for his skills with a sewer augur (which IS partially true).  He himself grew up working in his own family’s hardware store where he maintains that in addition to learning how to mix paint and make keys, his sum total sex education occurred in the pipe fitting department.   
“Dad,” he remembers saying one day when he was around 10, “why do they call these pipe fittings male and female?”

And Dad, a man of few words, particularly in the sex education department, gruffed, “Well, why do you THINK?” and walked away.  Olof studied the fittings a little longer and had a revelation.
Both Hammer & Nails and Meanley’s were instrumental in my two sons’ engineering educations.  Summer camps for two kids usually cost more than I would make in a week as a clerical so much of the time, I allotted them $10 a day in building supplies: pulleys, ropes, nails, boards, etc. and while I was at work, they built rustic tree forts, rope bridges, swings, bucket systems and even ziplines between the big trees in our front yard.  (I only mention this now because the statute of limitations for felony child endangerment has passed.)  Ironically, I ended up getting it all back and more years later when Meanley’s gave my younger son a $5,000 merit scholarship for his first year of college.

Meanley’s, of course, is the ultimate old fashioned general store, the place that has everything you can’t find anywhere else.  And if they don’t have it, they’ll order it.  And if it’s the wrong thing, they’ll take it back, without making you drive out to Clairemont and stand in an endless soul-crushing returns line.  I consider shopping at my local hardware store, if nothing else, an investment in my spiritual health.

I fear in this era of smaller service-oriented businesses being squeezed out by big-box stores that the Meanleys and Hammer & Nails of the world could soon end up distant memories.  I’m trying to even imagine my life, particularly when I was a single woman, without these two stores.  The lovely Dale has long since gone to the Big Nail Bin in the Sky, but I would never have gotten his faith in me, one-on-one instructions, and endless patience from Home Depot.  Please, shop local – while you still can. 

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