I didn’t step into a hardware store until after I graduated from college. Before then, I got by with tape and glue and campus maintenance. Out in the real world, if I wanted to bump up my décor from posters stuck on the wall to properly hung posters, I needed supplies. My first hardware store salesperson, like most of those to follow, offered as much unsolicited advice as my mother. “Measure twice, nail once,” he said, leading me to stuff I didn’t know existed. A level? A molly? I left with a full shopping cart, including a golden Russian nesting doll of a hammer that contained successively smaller golden screwdrivers inside the handle. Instead of spending my first professional paycheck on a more professional wardrobe, I had just blown it at the hardware store.
One more rental, a condo and a co-op later, the golden hammer now lies under an impressive collection of tools that continue to outshine my ability to use them – at least as intended. In my Lower Manhattan building, my former super and I used to laugh about finding our lost tools in each other’s toolboxes. My current super has a contraption he wears around his waist, a Bat Belt laced with the tools he uses every day to save our vertical little Gotham. Because he’s a nice guy and, I suspect, because he doesn’t want me borrowing tools I may “forget” to return, my super recently gifted me a retractable glass scraper. I probably won’t use this one as intended, either, since Windex takes care of most of my glass-cleaning needs. But from the look of it, my new tool will make quick work of slicing cheese and hard-boiled eggs. I can also see it making clean cuts on fabric, cardboard and oversized candles.
Knowing hardware stores are full of problem-solving potential, I can’t walk out of one without stuff I didn’t intend to buy and may never use – but then again, I might. The other day I repaired bent earrings by wrapping them around the padded handles of a wire cutter that I’ve never used to cut a wire because wires are none of my business. Whenever I run to the hardware store to pick up a socket or a spring or a screw that my super needs to fix something in my apartment, I always leave with something unrelated to the mission. Last week he and I decided it was past time to remove the 2020 pandemic bleach stains still streaking my front door. I returned from the hardware store with six sanding sponges in three different grits (because I always bring an assortment), four rolls of two-inch tape (because it came in pretty colors), a new hand saw (because mine was clogged with Christmas tree stump sap) and a long-handled mirror (because it might be useful the next time I’m trying to find a something small underneath low-lying furniture).
But no matter how much experience I’ve had, shopping in hardware stores can still be challenging. Since few items come with instructions, salespeople can easily tell the customers who know what they’re doing from those who don’t. When my new washing machine was delivered, the truck driver said, “If you get suds overflow, install a hose clip.” Once the suds hit the floor, I called a plumber who decided that what I needed instead was a wider drainpipe – and a bill for $500. When that failed, my next stop was the hardware store, where the salesperson took his time rummaging through a bin of rubber fittings, probably hoping I’d go away. “We don’t usually carry hose clips,” he said. But I had learned years earlier that the occasional reluctance to share hardware store knowledge, while annoying, is usually temporary if I’m patient. And indeed, he eventually unearthed a hose clip.
I discovered this trick while helping my then-teenage daughter paint her bedroom. When we finished the job, the wooden floor was covered in constellations of purple and orange splatters. The hardware salesperson stood by silently while we searched through spackle knives, joint knives, putty knives and dangerous-looking paint scrapers, trying to decide which would remove the paint without damaging the floor. Eventually he jumped in and spilled his secret: “A little denatured alcohol will wipe the paint right up.”
Anything Is Possible
What hardware store items lack in instructions they make up in contents. The glass scraper my super gave me comes with five extra blades. My new shoes didn’t come with extra laces. Plastic containers don’t come with extra lids. But the hose clip that now successfully steers washing-machine suds toward the drainpipe instead of onto my floor came with a clamp, a screw and a nut. And it only cost $3.99.
Today just one independent hardware store remains in my neighborhood; the rest have vanished, done in by big-box stores and then by the pandemic. Our small shop is worth a stroll through its narrow aisles just to see the walls slide horizontally to reveal double the merchandise behind them. Maybe this is where some young woman will walk in and buy her first tool. Maybe like my golden hammer, it will eventually become buried in a toolbox under a larger collection. But when peeking out from underneath, it will recall a time when, with the right tool, anything seemed possible.