The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker ….. a nursery rhyme about people who actually did things, made stuff. They were the job they did. Will it come around again?
Yesterday, I wrote a piece about the greengrocer's and today I am moving on to the hardware shop and its natural relationship to the modern DIY store. A sort of bipolar snapshot that is less about the history of retail outlets and more about what we value as a species. A bit like yesterday's attack on fruit and vegetables so I apologise for the recurring theme but maybe it's useful to examine the idea of the shopping parade and what it represents. Let's turn the clock back and see what is revealed as I ram-raid the shops of my youth.
The parade itself is L-shaped but the overall effect is that of a square with the missing corner occupied by a box they call a public house. There are two paths into the parade: the pavement leading down from the community centre, past and under the bridge made by the old peoples' flats and then the more direct route from the car park which takes you along next to the pub. This second entrance is flanked either side by grassy areas, littered with cigarette ends, teenagers on bikes and I think, some picnic-style benches belonging to the pub. But that's the thing. That's what would be there today, I imagine. I do know that it was a foreboding path to follow. Maybe I'm just projecting what is common now back into the past. A flaw in my memory. I'll assume that we've negotiated the teenagers, the pub's guard dog and resisted looking in through the darkened windows at the fruit machines twinkling hedonisticly. Not fairy lights. You'd go to the hardware shop for those. Right. Up the steps, don't hold onto the metal handrail, it's got chewing gum stuck to it. Now, at the top, dead opposite is where we're headed. The serious shop. All the others on this side of the L are lightweights. This is the shop to buy the things you really need.
The glazed door is a mozaic of stickers arranged around the 'Open' and 'Closed' sign. Unlike the greengrocer's, the door is usually closed or maybe in summer, wedged a few inches open with a piece of wood. As you push your weight against the glass, a bell tinkles above your head alerting the shopkeeper to your presence. The fact that you've stumbled in from the sudden give in the door's hinge mechanism or that the only line of vision you have is the tiled floor leading you straight to the till seems to be ignored as a means of announcing your arrival. The layout is a labyrinth of shelving stacked higher than you dare look for fear of flinching and knocking the displays over.
If the shopkeeper is occupied with another customer, you may get a chance to browse around this grotto but inevitably, you will be greeted with 'Can I help you?' and the fun will end. I remember tap washers, screws, rat poison, mops and rabbit food. There is always one of those portable gas heaters and a smell of paraffin. Mr Hardware wears a brown cotton coat, a bit like a doctor's. Mrs Hardware is never to be seen but her touch is evident in the knitted toilet roll covers and doilies in the window display and the varieties of threads and floral sticky-back plastic rolls.
It was the shop you went to buy everything that you couldn't get in the other shops. That much, I suppose, is obvious as it wouldn't be sensible to have an overlap but what I mean is that he sold the means to mend things. He sold little things. Or just one thing if that's all you needed. No sales, no offers. I don't think he wrote to any of his customers. They just came to him when they needed something.
This weekend is 15% day at our nearest DIY store. They sell similar stuff to our Mr Hardware but in bigger quantities. It's such a bargain to buy these quantities that if you're lucky, you might even get one free. For what? They probably won't have your tap washer because they're all made to a special design, you may have to replace the whole unit and hell, you may as well buy a new sink, a new kitchen even and yes, today is 15% day. So you've saved all that money.
I may hear you saying that the hardware store was old-fashioned and out of touch with modern style. Perhaps it didn't even address the issue of style at all. And that's a good thing. Mr Hardware didn't try to decide your style for you, he respected what you already had and helped you to fix it. If he couldn't then so be it and you could go off to make your choice elsewhere. The DIY store has already lured you out of town, swallowed you whole in its cavernous hangar and convinced you that their range is style itself, that you have a choice. Their choice. So you don't need to bother yourself with going elsewhere. A little Orwellian maybe?