Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Changing Face of Hardware

My trip to Home Depot today made me think about my many experiences in a hardware store and how the faces have changed over the years. I noticed a big change in the ethnicity of the staff.

I always loved going to hardware stores. I loved running my fingers through the bins of nails and screws and seeing how many different solutions there were to any building or repair problem. I loved the smell of fresh-cut lumber. I loved the fact that they often gave children scraps that would have otherwise ended up in a trash bin.

When I was young the typical clerk, who might also have been the owner, was a middle-aged white man who wore an apron with lots of pockets. He would offer suggestions, help you locate the necessary items, and then ring you up on an old-fashioned cash register.

Soon after I moved here, I noticed many of the employees in my local Hechingers were black. By this point in time, there was no longer the requirement to know how to make home repairs; an employee had only to be able to scan a barcode.

When Hechingers went out of business and Home Depot opened, I started to notice a very diversified workforce. There were people from all over the world, even people with physical disabilities. I remember once communicating with an employee on a small slate because he was a deaf mute.

For a while there were lots of Hispanics working at my Home Depot, but they must have figured out they could make more money in construction and cleaning houses because they no longer predominate today.

So who did I find as I went to check out with one enormous dowel today? It was a very helpful and efficient woman in a head scarf. She quickly took the dowel over to a place to measure it, telling me it was indeed 16 feet long, not 12 as I had thought. She found a man to carry it back to get 2 feet cut off of it, as I compromised on 14 feet. She probably knew very little about home repairs, but she did understand how to make the customer happy. As I looked at the other clerks checking people out, I realized that many of them were similarly attired Muslim women.

The days of the family-owned hardware store where the proprietor knew all his customers and knew how to do the many things they were trying to do are long gone. There are a few hold-outs like Brown’s in Falls Church, but for the most part we go to the UN of Home Depot where the price is right and the stock is plentiful. The people employed there are working hard to make the American dream a reality.


Blogger Washington Cube said...

A friend and I were discussing this the other day. He was missing the small family owned office supply stores when you just wanted one pencil or one file folder. They would always special order things for you, knew your name and your needs. It was nice. Washington had many such places, as well as the old five and dimes (long gone). There are two places you might want to explore just for fun, if you don't know them already. One is the Strosneider's Hardware in Bethesda, and just next to it Bradley's Novelties (like an old fashioned five and dime). 6930 Arlington Road (which runs parallel to Wisconsin.) You get lots of personalized help and they carry all sorts of things that never seem to be available anymore. When they have local polls, Strosneider's in Bethesda is almost always on top for attentive salespeople.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Cube -- I like office supply stores just about as much as hardware stores. Growing up I spent a lot of time in Woolworth's spending my hard-earned allowance. I'll have to check out the two Bethesda stores the next time I bike up the Crescent Trail.

9:59 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

We still have small hardware stores here though they are not always mom and pop but branches of a larger chain and clerked by a young staff, some knowledgeable, some not. Here in my town we have the old fashioned lumber yard that's been there since I was a kid, though the owners have changed a couple of times. In the next bigger town 7 miles away there's Aubuchon's (a chain store) and as you get closer to the nearest city, you can find Home Depot. All but one of our little local five and dimes are gone. Woolworth's went out when I was still a teenager. The clerks in the Home Depot here are not as diverse as yours - mainly they're local folks who aren't trained for any other kind of work or retired folks who meet and greet.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- I can imagine New England retains a little more of the small town feeling. But I do mark the beginning of the big change at the point where barcodes started to be used to tell the price of items. And I do so miss Woolworths and its competitors. It was at Woolworths that I put my first (and only ever) item on layaway at age 10. It was a pink set of doll-size kitchen appliances which I was buying for the very large dollhouse a neighbor boy and I were building in my room.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Aileen said...

Wow- I had forgotten all about the old "layaway" concept!

See you May 3! :)

10:28 AM  
Blogger Kristin said...

You reminded me of how much I love Fragers. It's a little more little more like I remember from small town Ohio.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Aileen -- Yes, layaway was the old way to buy over time.

Kristin -- I must say Fragers is the real thing, preserved in its entirety!

2:09 PM  

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