Years ago my parents owned a small, mom & pop, hardware store. I wish I still had photos of the place, but I was too young to be thinking of photographs back then (I was only a few years old at the time). Still, even at such a young age I remember a few things about living above a hardware store, and what life was like for my parents — the only employees.
We sold glass, everything from window glass to thicker sheets the likes of which you’d use for shelves, etc. The glass was kept in the basement — a dark, dank place that I only ventured into when I was with mom or dad — it scared the bejeezus out of me! There were vertical racks where large panes were stored and a long table on which the panes could be placed — one by one — and cut to size. Whatever size you wanted. Right there, on the spot.
It is that which I remember most about living with the hardware store. The fact that people came in with problems and my folks were there to help them out of the problem: if it involved cutting a piece of glass to size, then that was what they did.
How well I can still hear the sound of a glass cutter on glass. Then there was that certain “tink” when the glass surrendered at the scribed line drawn by the glass cutter — breaking smooth and clean.
It used to be that small stores dotted the landscape. Driving along a city street there were a lot of storefronts with residence space above. I’ve often wished we could find an apartment in such a building; I loved the idea of being able to live in the middle of a bustling business community — of course, nowadays those small stores spread along the city street are dying and with them a way of life.
I looked at that shelf and thought back to a thousand times I walked into a little mom & pop store. I remember the mixture of greetings I received; sometimes cheery, other times glum, periodically I was aware that the shop owner might even have wished I hadn’t have walked in the door.
I thought about what happens when I walk into a Big Box store, a Walmart or a Home Depot and there I’m met by a “greeter”; a person who’s sole job is to make you think they are happy to see you. It’s a far cry from a shop owner whom you know by name welcoming you into their world and hoping they can be of assistance.
I suspect that if I walked into the same Big Box store at the same time every day I’d rarely if ever run into the same greeter; fact of the matter is I pay no attention to the greeters at the stores I shop in. They are irrelevant. Oh, I don’t mean personally, but they truly have no reason for being there. In today’s shopping world they don’t really serve a useful purpose. They aren’t necessarily familiar with where to find things. They aren’t supposed to leave their station so they can’t take you to where you want to go. All they do is stand around “looking friendly” and maybe pushing a shopping cart at you to encourage you to purchase more than you intend.
The thing about small stores and their clerks is that they need you and they know it. They may not love their job but there is a tacit recognition that they need to service you if they are going to make a living. Most of them (at least in my experience — and I tend to greet everyone I meet with a smile and a cheery “good morning”) are happy to help out — whether it’s point me to the right aisle, or helping me find a product, or as in the case with finding the right sized screws or bolts, they will rummage around in the bins until they find just the right size for my need.
What you built were relationships with the people who serviced your needs. You’d chat across the meat counter with the butcher. A good butcher would know you on sight and know whether you wanted one or two or three pork chops. The dry cleaner did more than clean your suits; was expert at removing all manner of stains; and it wasn’t too much to expect them to sew on a loose button or two. You knew them; they knew you; you expected certain things from each other.
We try, as much as possible, to deal with small retailers/craftsmen/suppliers. Their livelihood depends on local support and in ways that have nothing to do with dollars and cents the community depends on the local business owner. That morning I left the bathroom a little bit saddened that those mom & pop stores are disappearing. The Waltons, owners of Walmart, don’t really need my money — they are rich enough already. My little bit of business isn’t going to hurt them. But my little bit of business will help some of those little guys hang around a little longer. It’s not a big thing that I do, but it’s worth while.