Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Store

Handy Andy was my father’s hardware store. My grandfather bought the store in 1930 with the name and business already established and eventually handed it down to his two sons. For over fifty years it was a family business where my grandfather, grandmother, father, uncle, brother, my two cousins and I all worked at one time or another.
Handy Andy, Stewart Manor, NY

The jobs sorted themselves according to gender; the men were salesmen, deliverymen and repairmen while the women were cashiers. My mother helped by designing the circulars, painting signs and dressing the windows.  By the time I was in middle school my uncle had left Handy Andy to pursue another career and soon afterwards the influx of big box stores began to squeeze out many independent, family run businesses. In 1985 my father sold the business to a Korean man who knew very little English and even less about hardware, and by the time my Dad died in 2008 Handy Andy was a vacant storefront.

Although my father was knowledgeable about hardware and running a store, it always struck me as ironic that hardware was his business at all. His workshop at home was always in disarray and he was neither interested in craftsmanship, tinkering nor any other activity that required the services of a store such as the one he owned.  But my father was also a responsible man and he ran Handy Andy guided by his integrity and generosity. He may not have been especially handy but he had the talents of a good bartender; he listened well, dispensed advice and kept his customers happy.  

My Grandmother at the cash register
When I was growing up and asked on questionnaires and applications what my father did, the only appropriate answer was “merchant”.  I was always chagrinned by that description because even then it was an archaic term and “merchant” did not seem to describe my father’s life.  It didn’t imply the good humor or fairness with which my Dad ran his store or the struggles that small businesses faced. For me, the term “merchant” conjured up images of men in brocade with plumed hats, a far cry from my father’s no-iron plaid shirts and khakis.  It did distinguish him from the majority of my friends’ fathers, who mostly were identified as  “stockbroker” or “lawyer”, so perhaps I felt I would be judged for being different.  As a rule, however, everyone loved hardware stores. 

When I worked there in the late sixties, a hardware store, much like today, was a place where you could find nails, hand tools, house wares, pocketknives, high intensity lamps, batteries, clocks, peat moss, paint, solvents and more than anything else: men.  During the week, throngs of suburban family men commuted into the city and on the weekend they flocked to the hardware store, relishing their time out of business suits, away from the demands of Madison Avenue and Wall Street.  They told their wives they needed a part or advice for a repair, but what they really sought was the camaraderie of this de facto men’s club where the bond of good humor was shared between the customers and employees.  Instead of leather, mahogany and whiskey, there was pegboard, oak and turpentine. The men seemed genuinely happy to have chores that necessitated working with their hands and getting dirty and they were in no hurry to return home. In those days, if someone returned four times over the course of a repair for another part, it was cause for a joke or a shrug, not the source of frustration that it would engender today when weekends are often hectic and errands are anonymous transactions.

Like my grandmother and my cousins before me, I was the cashier.  Each Saturday through out high school, I sat on a chrome stool with a yellow vinyl seat pulled up to the cash register at the check out counter.  I rang up orders and took money from WWII marines with faded tattoos on their arms as well as from clean-cut ad men in preppy LaCosta shirts and pressed Bermuda shorts. Horse trainers from the nearby stables at Belmont Racetrack, neighboring businessmen and custodians all showed up at Handy Andy.  Some men shopped while others just stopped in to socialize.  It was a lively outpost. 

Behind me was the machine for mixing paints and the one for cutting keys with an oversized lever fashioned to look like the tab of a giant skate key.  Once the original key and blank were secured into place, it emitted a high-pitched scream as it ate into the brass blank, vibrating perilously before settling into a deeper rattle on subsequent passes, finally spitting out a duplicate. With one last pass over the grinder, the key was done.  What should have been an irritant became a sound I loved, especially when the store was at its busiest. 
Interior, 1930's

To my right was the paint department. A library ladder on wheels followed a track along the south wall below the sign advertising Pittsburgh Paints.  After a custom color was made and the paint can was dancing violently in the mixing machine on its heavy springs, and especially if keys were being made at the same time, the decibel levels and vibrations would reach a thrilling crescendo. Mostly though, the store was a quiet place filled with men's voices as they joked with each other and exchanged neighborhood news.  

On the wall opposite the paints were the house wares and rolls of contact paper and to the left of the front entrance were the seasonal items: bags of Scotts fertilizer and grass seed in the summers and snowplows during the winter if we were fortunate to have snowstorms. A snowless winter was a financial disaster akin to no rain for a farmer: no sales of snow blowers, snow shovels or rock salt.  A dry January could be very bleak and it wouldn't be until after the Spring circular was mailed that there would be the possibility of another busy season.

The unknown salesman
Directly ahead of me, towards the back of the store, a sample of wood venetian blinds had been hanging in perpetuity below the industrial clock.  Beyond that were the built in wood cabinets storing small hardware of every variety, mostly unpackaged goods, and past this was a small and very messy bathroom and office where once a month Anne, the bookkeeper, came to put the ledgers in order. 

Every morning that I worked at Handy Andy began the same way.  My father and I drove the five-minute commute from our house and we parked in a small lot behind the store that was shared with the neighboring delicatessen.  We were allowed the privilege of entering the deli through the tiny kitchen, squeezing past the German women dressed in white uniforms who were boiling large vats of potatoes. I was always astonished by their ability to peel potatoes directly out of the hot water, a skill no doubt acquired over a lifetime of preparing potato salads.  We always ordered the same thing from a succession of men named Hans and Heinrich: tea with milk, no sugar and a buttered bagel. With breakfast in hand we retraced our steps back through the kitchen and entered the store through the back room where the sheets of glass and rolls of screens were cut. We stepped over the nickel that was firmly glued down on the floor, a longstanding practical joke, the origin of which escapes me.  At 8:30 sharp, my father unlocked the front door and the day began.

The employees were a motley bunch.  There was Curt, who worked at the store for years, until his death, in fact; a small, fastidious man, always in a tidy blue smock, who took his lunch breaks in his car, eating the sandwich he brought from home before taking a quick nap stretched out on the back seat.  He had an intensity that matched his brilliantined black hair and displayed a rigid efficiency that was very different than my father’s laconic manner.  Irving was a large, kindly and sloppy man, a science teacher who only worked on Saturdays, like myself.  If Curt exuded a keen humorless intelligence, Irving had the attributes of an endearing puppy. 
Brian in the back room
Over the years there were many others:  Brian, a funny and good-natured Italian kid, Frank, the Hungarian immigrant, always sporting leather jackets and pressed slacks, looking every inch the Eastern European man that he was, and Joe, an elderly and genteel man who could have passed for a retired movie matinee idol. Howie was one of the many neighborhood kids who began working part time after school and stayed for years. In fact, most of my father's employees were very loyal.  His humorous demeanor made the store a fun place to work and I always remember a lot of laughter during the day even when worries kept my Dad up at night. 

When Saturdays became busy, a line would form at the checkout counter.  Brian or Howie would throw a 25 lb. bag of Sakrete onto the counter as I rang up the UGL sealant with the silicone nipple on the packaging. I snapped open the brown paper bags in a downward flourish before counting out the screws and placing them inside along with the 3 into 2 plug adapters and sandpaper. I learned to count out change, a skill necessary prior to the advent of digital cash registers and a lost art today.  If a customer had a charge account, I was never entrusted to the task of checking them out.
My father at Handy Andy in the 70's

Instead, my father would be the one to write up their order by hand on a small mechanical ledger that extruded a copy of the receipt for the customer while keeping a yellow copy for itself.   Some customers roamed around the store themselves, but usually they waited for assistance because they had questions; they needed to know how to patch the driveway, rewire a lamp or fix a leaking faucet.  A good employee needed to know a little about a lot of things and have the skill to interpret and solve problems.  

My favorite time of year at the store was during the holidays.  For someone growing up Jewish, the sights and sound of Christmas were especially tantalizing.  I took it all in: The C-7 and C-9 bulbs sold individually and sorted by colors, the boxed sets of ornaments, strings of lights, tinsel garlands and the constant sound of the cash register tallying sales co-mingling with Christmas music on the sound system.  At the counter were novelties:  Santa pins that lit up, heat activated ashtrays that automatically disposed of cigarette butts when they became too short and mesmerizing lava lamps. On Christmas Eve, about an hour before the store closed for the holiday, a table was set up by the cash register with food and even some alcohol for the employees and customers.  Everyone was festive in anticipation of the holidays and the rarity of the occasion, like a snow day at school, only heightened our enjoyment.   

Sometimes, if there was a quiet stretch on a Saturday, I would pick up one of the scratch pads with the Handy Andy logo emblazoned on top and I would sketch nuts and bolts and miscellaneous hardware.  My high school style of drawing was primitive, but I was able to capture the graphic quality of screws and pliers.  Drawing forced me to carefully observe the merchandise and that may partially account for my vivid memories. What escapes me are the specifics of what made my father’s store unique.  I wish I possessed the novelist’s ear for dialogue and could recount anecdotes to recreate the life at Handy Andy.  But I mainly have my visual and tactile memories and the belief that the world my father created in his hardware store was something greater than the sum of its parts.  He fashioned his store after himself:  casual, fair-minded and helpful, with a wry view of the world and indeed, life.  He was a mensch of a merchant.

photos:  all photos are property of Lorraine Heitzman