The Franquinhas have been selling hardware on Metropolitan Avenue in North Brooklyn since 1962. Brothers Joe and Manny started off in a narrow storefront now occupied by a record shop. In time they bought up five lots across the street, and Crest True Value Hardware grew into its current 5,000 square-foot space. Manny’s son, also named Joe, added the garden center out back, where in good weather you’ll find Finlay the African gray parrot and Franklin the pot-bellied pig. As Williamsburg changed around it, 1 Crest was always there, a beacon. The younger Joe now owns the store. As he told me, “It’s big, it’s bright, it’s red,” and there are hundreds of potted plants out front. It’s hard to miss.
I grew up in a hardware store, too, so Joe and I had a lot to talk about. As we chatted in the upstairs office, I sat in the chair his mom, Catherine, uses when she helps with the bookkeeping. On her desk was a flowerpot filled with a couple dozen uniformly sharpened pencils. Manny’s death last summer, at the age of 89, was deeply felt in the community he maintained for over half a century. “He never turned down a school in need, a church in need,” Joe said. When a neighbor, the artist Gene Pool, was looking for a venue to showcase his work, Manny gave him space in the shop windows. “Before you know it,” Joe said, “Gene was inviting all these other artists into the store to showcase their work.” And that’s how the Crest Hardware Art Show was born.
The annual exhibition of hardware-themed art ran originally from 1994 to 1999. After Joe took over the store in 2007, he brought the art show back for another long run. It “got killer press” and attracted international visitors, but Joe always framed the show as a neighborhood affair. 2 He kicked things off every season with Crest Fest, a street festival attended by several thousand people, and donated the proceeds to local institutions like the Reliquary museum and Macri Park. The store also hosted pumpkin carving contests, film screenings, and concerts. 3 None of it made much sense “from a retail perspective,” Joe said, because “we were shuffling all this stock around in order to make a place for art.” But it made sense from a civic perspective. “The community has seen us investing in them, so they’re willing to invest in us.”
At the same time, Joe reimagined the store’s layout and merchandise. 4 In the aughts many North Brooklyn business owners embraced an apothecary aesthetic, opening straight-razor barber shops and artisanal cocktail bars. Joe saw an opportunity to reclaim the original meaning of the general store — to “tell the story,” he said, of Crest Hardware as a “common ground” and gathering space. Now, when you walk through the front door and step onto the wide, weathered floor planks, the first thing you see is a big, wraparound checkout counter that Joe calls the “command post.” It feels a bit like the library service desks of yore. (Some early libraries were even in hardware stores!) 5 The new display shelves, black with wood-tone peg board, convey that the goods have been curated with care. Questions are answered at a long wooden service counter along the back wall.
The hardware store holds (and organizes) the tools, values, and knowledges that bind a community and define a worldview.
In Joe’s telling, there is a reciprocal relation between the hardware store and the neighborhood it supplies. Those plank floors might seem as if they were buried beneath the old tile, just waiting to be exposed, but actually the wood was reclaimed from nearby buildings damaged by Hurricane Sandy. “We wear those floors almost like a badge of honor,” he told me. Similarly, the counters were sourced from a former employee (now a local firefighter) who was renovating his home. “That live edge: you can tell they’ve been somewhere,” Joe said. “And for the last hundred years they’ve lived less than a quarter-mile away, holding up somebody’s building.”
This is a vision of the hardware store as episteme. It holds (and organizes) the tools, values, and knowledges that bind a community and define a worldview. There’s a material and social sensibility embodied in the store, its stuff, and its service, and reflected in the diverse clientele. That might sound a bit lofty for a commercial establishment that sells sharp objects and toxic chemicals. But the ethos is palpable. (And profitable, too. The store is always busy, and Joe has been lauded by the North American Retail Hardware Association.) 6
Headlines proclaiming the death of neighborhood retail remind me of all those articles a few years back that wrongly predicted the end of the library. Despite competition from big-box stores and the internet, many local hardware stores are doing all right. In 1972, the United States had about 26,000 hardware stores. Their number dropped to 19,000 by 1990 and 14,000 by 1996, but for the past two decades it has been fairly steady. Hardware Retailing reports a slight annual drop in the number of independent stores, but sales are strong (even increasing) at the ones that remain. 7
In an era of black-boxed neural nets and disposable gadgets, hardware stores promote a material consciousness and a mechanical sensibility.
Why should we care about the survival of these quotidian spaces, with their ten-cent goods, at a time of crisis when many American cities lack affordable housing and clean water? I’d argue that the hardware store is more than a “common ground.” It’s a place of exchange based on values that are evidently in short supply among our political and corporate leaders: competence, intention, utility, care, repair, and maintenance. 8 In an era of black-boxed neural nets and disposable gadgets, hardware stores promote a material consciousness and a mechanical sensibility. They encourage civic forms of accreditation, resistant to metrics and algorithms. At some neighborhood stores, you can stop in for a couple of screws and be waved off from paying at the register.
And the hardware store is a vital social infrastructure, integrating the civic and commercial spheres. 9 Particularly in small towns, the “other America” rendered visible by the 2016 election, hardware stores can function as social spaces where the working class congregates and consolidates and negotiates cultural differences. (In cities, this also happens at specialized “supply stores” catering to professional electricians, plumbers, and builders.)
You could buy frames and fasteners for fixing material things, and you could access a social infrastructure that gave shape to the community. The world was built from the stuff on its shelves.
My family’s business, Triangle Building Supplies, began in the 1970s in an old lollipop stick factory in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, near the spring that supplies the town’s water. It later moved across town, close to the high school. Like Crest, the store had a formal, geometric name that signaled an affinity for order, and like Crest it joined the True Value co-op network. My brother drove a forklift in the lumber yard, while I chose to stay inside, feather-dusting paint cans and sorting small hardware into bins. Everything had its place. Wires and cables, pipes and elbows, hinges, washers, nuts, and springs; screws slotted, Phillips, hex, and torx; roofing nails and framing nails and finishing nails. People, too, had their stations: mostly women at the cash registers up front, all men at the back service counter and in the yard. To me the store’s order seemed sublime: magical and scary, and always tempered by a persistent layer of dust.
Yet growing up in that environment impressed upon me that pretty much everything can be made and fixed by regular people. It helped me appreciate how the world hangs together — how a building stands up, how electricity gets to the outlet, how water gets in the kitchen sink and out of a flooded basement. Triangle offered an elegant geometry. You could buy frames and fasteners for fixing material things, and you could access a social infrastructure that gave shape to the community. The world was built from the stuff on its shelves.
“An Incongruous Mixture”
To understand how American hardware stores have shaped communities, and vice versa, it helps to trace an earlier genealogy: the rise of the general store. 10 Some general stores emerged in the 18th century from trading posts, bases of settler colonialism. Others began humbly as a single room in a rural family home or a log cabin at the crossroads, before moving into a standalone building whose long counters held waxes and shovels, crockery and kettles, fruits and candies, horseshoes and harnesses, buttons and hairpins, flowers pots and chamber pots, books and gramophone records, teas and smoked meats, scissors and gunpowder, plows and hay. Brooms, lanterns, and buggy whips hung from the ceiling. Barrels were packed with flour and pickles, and shelves with medicinal balms and bitters — or what historian Gerald Carson calls “profitable ‘patents’ and bewhiskered quacks.” 11
All those materials produced a distinctive ambience. “An older generation of southerners still recalls the heady smells of apples, cheese, tobacco, oranges, salt mackerel, axle grease, soap, and kerosene,” historian Thomas Clark wrote in 1944. “This was an incongruous mixture, but the blended smells gave the southern country store a pungent aroma … [whose] romance was one of a frugal sort of rural plenty.” 12 That particular romance was short-lived. By the mid-19th century, manufacturers were packaging branded goods in paperboard cartons, tin cans, and waxed wrappers, reducing the need for unsanitary bulk sales and eliminating many of the barrels, scoops, and canisters that contributed to the clutter and aroma.
The general store’s inventory reflected — and often shaped — community needs and values. The social roles performed by storekeepers likewise varied. Historian Diane Wenger has traced economic relations in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, a village of 500 people where Samuel Rex opened a country store in 1790. Two years before Congress passed the Mint Act, bartering was still a common practice. For certain goods Rex turned to local suppliers, purchasing tobacco products, earthenware, nails, hides, shoes, rakes, and barrels from the potters, smiths, tanners, cobblers, and coopers around town. 13 Much of his business, however, involved regional trade. Local craftspeople sold Rex their butter, lard, beeswax, tallow, pork, iron, and whiskey in exchange for store credit, and then he worked through agents to trade those goods in Philadelphia for city wares that were not locally available. The store thus “connected Schaefferstown to the wider Atlantic economy.” 14 Iron bars made by local smiths became currency when exchanged for merchandise at Rex’s store, and he made loans to the ironmasters and allowed them to use store credit to pay their employees. 15 Other customers, too, used their store accounts to take out loans. So Rex the shopkeeper was also Rex the banker. He blended community- and market-based exchanges and networked the mine, farm, town, and city to build an early logistical system. 16
Rex the shopkeeper was also Rex the banker. He networked the mine, farm, town, and city to build an early logistical system.
Similarly, many Southern general stores traded in “cash or cotton”; or, in the mountain stores of the Piedmont, in cord wood, wool, beeswax, flax, pork, and butter. Here, too, shopkeepers “moved the surplus of local agriculture or industry on to the primary markets.” Carson reports that “after the harvest, the cash crops of the South paid for the store goods advanced over twelve months.” 17 At the general store, cotton was spun into credit, and the “countryman made contacts with industrial and commercial America.” 18 Things worked differently in Midwestern railroad towns, which in addition to the general store often had specialized drug, clothing, and hardware stores, as well as creameries, produce buyers, and banks. The less “generalist” general store was a cash enterprise, unlikely to provide production credit. 19
Pretty much everywhere, the storekeeper wore multiple hats. In Schaefferstown, Rex provided legal and writing services and served as a liaison to postal riders. Many general store owners were official postmasters. Others made space for the barber, the tax collector, and the election pollster. 20 Clark holds the Southern storekeeper to a particularly high standard: he was “all things to his community” — a “steward, railway agent, fertilizer salesman, social adviser, character reference, politician, lodge master, and general community ‘obliger.’” He was a social orderer, and his store was “the hub of the local universe”: “market place, banking and credit source, recreational center, public forum, and news exchange.” 21 The front doors and porch pillars served as bulletin boards. “Largely because of the store,” Carson concurs, “a clutch of houses became a town,” and even more, a community. 22 There was typically an open area around the stove where the (mostly male) patrons could gather for “gabbling, yarn spinning, chewing, [and] dipping.” 23
Folklorist Amos W. Long, Jr., writes:
In the days when each family lived a separate and solitary existence, it was the general store which helped band scattered farms and homesteads into a community. Indeed, in the nineteenth century the village store provided services of astounding diversity and depth which reflected the wants, customs, and folkways of that community. 24
Here jokes and stories and dialects were rehearsed, news and gossip were circulated, and opinions on local and national events were solidified. Long sees “democracy at work,” and Clark (again, writing in 1944) claims that the general store was the most inclusive space in town, where a black man would find his “money was as good as that of the white man.” 25 Yet as much as we might like to imagine the general store as a public space where all were welcome, it was ultimately a “place of [white] male refuge.” 26 In the Jim Crow South, stores were often segregated, and even when black customers were welcomed there was no guarantee of safety. 27 We have to remember that Emmett Till’s encounter with Carolyn Brant, which led to his lynching in 1955, took place at her family’s store in Money, Mississippi. The same conditions that made the general store a powerful space of social ordering could make it dangerous for those who transgressed its codes. 28
The same conditions that made the general store a powerful space of social ordering could make it dangerous for those who transgressed its codes.
As the 20th century proceeded, some of the commercial functions of the general store were replaced by alternatives, and the social functions likewise dropped away. With the rise of mail-order and delivery services, the postmaster-shopkeeper often found himself receiving packages for neighbors who patronized his competitors. New cars and better roads made it easier for customers to travel to bigger towns with supermarkets and department stores. The decline in family farming, increased urbanization, evolving credit structures, and the rise of retail chains and convenience stores all impacted the general store.
Country stores are still social hubs in many areas of the United States, but their proprietors rarely buy goods from the customers. They don’t often make loans or trade in alternative currencies. Brooks Blevins observes that the stores that have survived in the Ozarks have done so by focusing on basic needs: “feed and fertilizer, gasoline and farm diesel, tools and local gossip … benches and a warm stove.” But they also depend on customers honoring a tacit social contract, “at least occasionally paying a few dollars more” for groceries (which may, in fact, be foods bought at the regional Walmart and marked up) in recognition of the store’s value to the community. 29
“The Necessary and Proper Article”
Hardware stores began to diverge from general stores around the turn of the 20th century, when proprietors extracted “hard” merchandise and left behind the “soft” lines like textiles and food. 30 Yet that “hardness” still accommodated tremendous variety. As William Smythe explained in 1899, “domestic hardware includes agate, tin, and iron utensils and other household furnishings. Builders’ hardware explains itself in a long line of bolts, locks, knobs, and trimmings, in addition to building staples, while tools, agricultural implements, machinists’ supplies, cutlery, and saddlers’ hardware are common trade distinctions.” 31
Early general stores didn’t carry nuts and bolts; instead, blacksmiths were commissioned to make them on demand.
Those bolts and nails and screws evolved along with the establishments that sold them — and the increasingly industrialized economies and standardized cultures that supported them. In New England in the early 19th century, shops didn’t carry nuts and bolts; instead, blacksmiths were commissioned to make them on demand, as non-interchangeable custom sets. 32 Country stores did sell wood screws, but they, too, lacked uniformity. 33 While the machines of the Industrial Revolution were built with threaded fasteners, the fasteners themselves were artisanally produced, which limited their utility. Around the turn of the 19th century, inventors like Henry Maudslay designed lathes that allowed for the “modern, exact and scientific” production of screws, so that individual manufacturers could produce uniform bits, but still those makers adhered to their own internal orders. 34 Over the next several decades, various engineers proposed specifications for standardizing screws’ pitch, depth, and shape, and two dominant models emerged: Joe Whitworth’s U.K. standard and William Sellers’s U.S. standard. This caused problems during the world wars, as the Allied forces exchanged parts on the battlefield. 35 So, finally, in 1948, the U.K., U.S., and Canada adopted a Unified Thread System, and a worldwide standard followed in 1964. The centuries-long, twisting path toward uniformity culminated in the system of interchangeable parts — screws, nails, nuts, washers — necessary for most home-repair and DIY projects.
Now imagine that confusion multiplied across thousands of product lines. In the late 19th century, a new class of distributors known as “jobbers” repped factory goods to retailers across the country. Jobbers had to be familiar with a wide array of products, but it was the hardwaremen who had to be exceptionally sharp; their acuity was lauded in many trade publications of the time. In an 1894 issue of The Hardware Dealer, columnist Tenpenny Thinker wrote:
I think that there are few lines of trade which require so close a personal attention to details as that of the retail hardware dealer. The average customer has a very indefinite idea of the name or nature of the device he requires, and therefore depends largely upon the intelligence of the dealer to supply the necessary and proper article. Even the everyday door knob and old-fashioned loose joint butt require intelligent attention and repeated explanation to make certain that the spindle is the right length, and whether the door swings to the right or to the left, and does the customer intend to use a rim or mortice latch. Then the length of the screws has to be considered, and, perhaps, the distance from the spindle to the keyhole must be ascertained, all of which seems of little importance to the customer, but must be understood by the dealer to render satisfactory service. 36
R. R. Williams, in Hardware Store Business Models (1901), suggested that the hardwareman need not rely on his brain alone to retain the names, sizes, and prices of every doodad and gizmo. He could always turn to his own bureaucratic hardware — catalogs and “want books” and the cabinets that kept them in order — to keep track of inventory. But he must still have a “working acquaintance’ with his goods,” an understanding of their functions and merits. 37 The aptly named D. T. Mallett drew a distinction between the skills required of the hardwareman in remote areas, where his technical savvy was key to his charges’ survival, and more developed towns, where he needed to rely on his charm to retain a loyal clientele and “make his store a vital institution in the life of the community.” 38 Our storekeeper required “personality, sympathy, friendliness, and an understanding of his local problems.” 39 As a reinforcer of the social order, he had “a memory for faces and circumstances, a naturally easy but polite attention … an obliging and generous treatment.” 40 He should deploy his staff appropriately, too. C. C. Founts recommended hiring “one or more lady clerks, who should have charge of the Cutlery and Silverware cases, because they are usually more careful and patient than men, and besides, many ladies prefer dealing with a lady clerk.” 41 (Carl Dipman noted that they were cheaper labor, too.)
In the early 20th century, the modern hardware store was conceived as a ‘scientific salesroom’ in which the consumer experience was engineered.
The store itself — its ambience and orderly merchandising — was part of that “generous treatment.” As the fashion in merchandising shifted in the early 20th century, hardware stores moved further away from their origins. Once a large storeroom ringed with counters, the hardware store was now conceived as a “scientific salesroom” in which merchandise was strategically sited and the consumer experience engineered. 42 In The Modern Hardware Store (1929), Dipman advised the “sales engineer” to place novelties in conspicuous locations and staples in less prominent places. Retailers should minimize the use of counters along the periphery and, instead, move merchandise to island displays, where customers could see and touch the goods and peruse related items. The paint table, for instance, should also feature brushes and steel wool. An island floor plan ordered the circulation and ultimately drew customers to the back of the store, where they would find the wrapping counter and high-demand items, like nails and screws. The front, meanwhile, featured “profitable specialties and impulse merchandise.” There was much debate in the early trade press about how shops should merchandise bicycles and other sporting goods. 43
As tools became more user-friendly, retailers began to aim their sales pitches at amateur homeowners rather than professional craftspeople. By the late 1920s, hardware stores refocused on “home renovation,” and they added features like how-to pamphlets, color guides, clinics, and design consultants. To reinforce their customers’ new sense of self-sufficiency, they had more self-service displays. Many hardware stores “incorporated the do-it-yourself idea into their names” and transformed themselves into a social infrastructure for democratized construction and maintenance. 44
These transformations were meant to attract not just an amateur clientele, but, in some cases, a female one. The shop was responding to, and perhaps even abetting, an evolving social order. A 1910 column in Hardware Dealer’s Magazine encouraged retailers to refresh their advertising to “let the women know that the hardware store is as much a place for them as it is for the men.” 45 A generation later, Dipman claimed that “the woman buyer with all her whims and fancies” was purchasing 49 percent of all hardware sold at retail. She had “become quite a painter,” too. The storekeeper, he wrote, must “cash in on her peculiarities — her wants and fantasies.” Dipman had rather peculiar ideas about those desires: women, he said, “are happy when surrounded by merchandise. … They like nothing better than merchandise well displayed on tables.” 46
Historian Regina Lee Blasczczyk observes:
By the early 1920s, hardware stores had discovered women in a big way; as a result, many blossomed into full-service home centers, whose balconies and basements brimmed with household hardware — cutlery, enameled pots, aluminum saucepans, glass baking ware, and fireless cookers. Fueled by the postwar appliance craze, these retailers … opened electrical goods sections staffed by women who demonstrated irons, vacuum cleaners, chafing dishes, clothes washers, and coffee percolators. 47
When Home Depot arrived in the late 1970s, many small hardware stores were strong enough to compete, thanks to their affiliation with a co-op.
Many of these same goods were sold by new competitors, like department stores, drug stores, chain variety stores, and mail-order houses. How hardware stores responded to this competition foretold their ability to later withstand the rise of big-box and online shopping. In the 1940s, some hardware stores banded together to form retailers’ cooperatives. Hardware Wholesalers (1945) and Cotter & Co (1948) later became the Do It Best and True Value co-ops. Ace went co-op in 1973. Locally-owned member collectives benefited from centralized purchasing power, and they received assistance with expansion, remodeling, merchandising, financing, employee training, secession planning, inventory management, market research, and advertising. When Home Depot arrived in the late 1970s, many small hardware stores were strong enough to compete, thanks to their affiliation with a co-op. 48 Stores like Crest Hardware have also survived because of their commitment to customer service, their investment in the community, and the fact that they offer instant availability in a high-touch industry. 49 As Joe Franquinha put it, “You gotta give them a reason to come in here.”
He eloquently described how the ethos of service carries forward:
If people need a specific lightbulb, there’s a question that comes along with it. … “Will this burn down my house? Will this be bright enough? Can I use this in my fridge?” As far as a nut and bolt goes, they ask, “Can I use this outside?” No, you cannot. You need a stainless-steel nut and bolt. … [The service counter] feels like a pulpit at times. It feels like a lab table at other times. It’s an opportunity to experiment, to learn something at little to no cost.
When Crest was planning its renovation, Joe sought out the advice of True Value’s specialists. “The first blueprint they gave me had no back counter,” he said. The consultants advised that his plan to keep all the nuts and bolts behind the counter was not an efficient use of space. “Says who?” he protested. “Do you have any idea how many times I get returns of ripped-open nuts-and-bolts packages … because customers bought the wrong one the first time, because there was no one helping them and they just grabbed it? Now they go to the back counter, because it’s the only place we sell nuts and bolts, and they get the right thing the first time.” That exchange has a value that doesn’t show up on the balance sheet, Joe said. The customer “might’ve only spent a dollar-fifty, but they walked out with a wealth of knowledge, with exactly what they need, and with the confidence knowing that the next time they have a project, they have a place that they can rely on.” Here he makes an argument that is extremely rare today, an argument against the casualization of labor and against the “responsibilization” of consumers to be self-sufficient. 50
“Keeping It Together”
How many store owners will follow Crest Hardware’s example and resist the efficiency experts? Every year, the National Hardware Show unveils new products and predicts market opportunities. As a kid, I attended a few of these conventions with my dad, marveling at the fancy cordless tools and miracle adhesives. This year’s offerings included a “smart home virtual reality experience,” a “tiny home” demo, and an “emergency preparedness and disaster recovery” display for the prepper market. 51
Who will succeed the current generation of owners? When my dad and his brothers were ready to retire, there was no one to take their place.
Yet the fundamentals of the hardware store are pretty old-school: hammers and hex screws and houseplants. It is a “repository of literally centuries of knowledge and experience,” and its wares include “some of the most artfully — and practically — engineered items in existence.” 52 There’s quite a legacy sitting on those shelves. Joe Franquinha’s revival of the general store is about the basics: “You need nuts and bolts to fix things. Without that, those things fall apart. And those operations are boiled down to their purest form. It’s this metal that connects, that serves one specific purpose: keep it together.”
That mantra — keep it together — poses a challenge to independent retailers. Who will succeed the current generation of owners? When my dad and his brothers were ready to retire, there was no one to take their place. (My cousins, my brother, and I were dedicated to other careers.) So they sold the family hardware store. Not long ago, I asked the sibling-owners of a neighborhood store here in New York what would happen to their business, family-owned since 1925, when they retired. The predicted outcome: “Mr. Developer comes along and buys us out.” Joe Franquinha’s story runs in the opposite direction. Growing up, he had no plans to stick around; he was going to be an actor. Yet he kept working in the store, and eventually, he said, “I saw that I could make this my life.” My brother and I never had Joe’s epiphany. A part of me will always regret that.
And what can we learn from those stores that don’t keep it within the family? When Kanakrai Mehta, owner of Halsted Hardware on the south side of Chicago, was ready to retire, he couldn’t find anyone to take his place. In a distant echo of the origin story of the Crest Hardware Art Show, Mehta ended up selling to his neighbor, the artist Theaster Gates, who relocated the inventory to the Fondazione Prada in Milan, an old gin distillery transformed by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA into a premier art venue. In an installation called, appropriately, True Value, Gates organized all 30,000 items — tape measures and extension cords and paint rollers — chromatically on peg-board stands. In the store’s reincarnation, the utilitarian order becomes an aesthetic one.
In the hardware store’s reincarnation as an art installation, the utilitarian order becomes an aesthetic one.
Gates says the work is a “reckoning” with the fact that “there are objects of power that are only powerful when one who knows that system manages the tool.” The tools and supplies sold at hardware stores represent the expert knowledge of electricians and plumbers and maintenance workers, whom Gates regards as the “shamans” of the everyday built world. They are the fixers who maintain the sublime systems necessary for our very survival, and they have skills and understandings that the rest of us lack, accustomed as we are to flat-packed furniture, black-boxed gadgets, and smart cities.
The hardware store owner, the one who curates this collection of generative and reparative parts, understands “the importance of the constant and daily care necessary to make this slowly eroding world hold up a little longer.” Gates says that True Value “is a testament to them.” Their story is about “order and power, structure and city.” 53 Here, amidst the nuts and bolts, we cultivate the potential to order things, places, communities, politics, and values — we might even say, to build and repair worlds.