In 1975, I moved to Newmarket, New Hampshire, and got my first full-time job working in a cabinet shop that was housed in an extension of a 100-year-old barn. The weight of the shop’s roof was spreading the walls and we needed to get a tie-rod to pull them back together. Steel rod was easy enough to find and have threaded, but we needed a big turnbuckle.
Two of us went to the hardware store in town to see if we could find one there. It was not a hardware store you’d recognize today—it had as much used stuff as new. The building was an aged white-clapboard telescope house with creaky wooden floors. We found the proprietor sitting by a hot barrel stove in a threadbare easy chair. We told him what we were looking for, and without a word he got up and led us through the maze of aisles to one of the building’s extremities. In the middle of the aisle he pushed some stuff out of the way and uncovered a turnbuckle that was about 24″ long, exactly what we needed. “They were for cinching up big wooden water tanks,” he said. “Not much call for them now.” I expect that place is long gone.
When I moved back home to Seattle and began building boats in 1978, there were three shops where I could buy new and used hardware and tools. There’s only one left now and its days are numbered. Hardwick’s Hardware was established in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression by the current owner’s grandfather. The store has been in its current location since 1938. It’s a single-story building being engulfed by the construction of new, much taller buildings all around it.
Inside Hardwick’s, the aisles are so narrow that you have to turn sideways to shuffle past anyone else in the aisle. No one seems to mind; no one is in a rush to get through the store. Even when I have in hand whatever I came for, I won’t make a beeline for the registers as I do in any other store. There some narrow passageways between aisles, some blind corners that lead to dead ends, and so many interesting things lining the shelves that by the time I get to the end of an aisle it is easy to forget where I am and where I was headed.
I’m happy to wander the aisles, looking at tools or hardware that I’ve never heard of. On my latest trip to Hardwick’s, for example, I discovered paper drills, barrel bung hole drills, duckbill pliers for upholsterers, grozing pliers for glaziers, plier wrenches, scythe nibs, and taper gauges.
When the chuck key that came with my 20-year-old drill press took a walk after staying where it belonged for almost two decades, I went looking for a replacement. The big-box store had some keys, all the wrong size, and all in plastic clam-shell packaging so I couldn’t try them. At the local chain hardware store I fared no better. I found the right key online at a supplier of replacement tool parts. It cost $11.11 for the key and $11.45 for shipping—pretty steep for a chuck key.
I called Hardwick’s and learned they had a drawer full of keys. I’d been going there for since the ’70s and hadn’t noticed it. I took the chuck with me and was led to a drawer that must have once been used for index cards, set at about shin height. There was a pile of used keys inside and I found six that fit my chuck. I bought three: one in original condition for $1.95, one with a handle with a steel rod welded in place for $1.00, and one with half a handle for 50 cents.
Property taxes for the land that Hardwick’s sits on have quadrupled in the past five years. And since the city decided last year to change the zoning code to allow buildings up to 240′ tall, high above the prior cap of 65’, taxes will go up even more, even faster. Before the owner can hand the reins over to his son—the fourth generation of Hardwicks—he will have to move the store and Seattle will be poorer for driving it out of the city. It may be a year before the Hardwicks sell their land and close their doors. If you’re in town, drop by. It’s as much a museum as it is a store.