More Caveat Emptor

“Revenge of Independent Hardware Stores.”  Independent hardware retailers are giving the big chains a run for their money.  These stores excel at giving friendly, knowledgeable, customer service.  Prices, aren’t necessarily cheaper.

We all know the requiem for retail stores in the twenty-first century.  Big-box megastores killed off the mom-and-pops.  Amazon and e-commerce crushed brick-and-mortar.  By the time the great recession hit, traditional retail was already toast–and the drop in consumer spending that came with the crisis burned it to a crisp.

Independent home-improvement retailers stand apart.  …Make up 50% of the market.  They are not just surviving.  They are thriving by offering products for local needs.  …Personal customer service.

Savvy customers are seeking local products or services, and are willing to pay for that knowledge and experience.  The hypothetical, was of a customer in a big-box store, seeking plumbing advice from an unexperienced employee borrowed from lawn-and-garden.

As an employee of one such independent hardware retail store–it was a pleasure and challenge to give good, personal customer service.  “Can you make me one of these?” Was frequently heard from customers–as they brought in homemade widgets to solve household problems.

My personal favorite customers, were those that dabbled in artsy-craftsy.  “I’d like to build a Christmas tree from plumbing fittings–something different.”  That turned out to be one of the easier challenges.

Self-employed inventors threw off bizarre vibes of paranoia.  They wanted help, without giving away what they were working on.

There were more humorous incidents than I can recall.  Some were doozies.  On my first day, a call from a customer with a chirping bird, hidden somewhere in her home.  Everyone thought her to be crazy.  It turned out to be a dying smoke detector battery.  The detector, forgotten about, stored away on a laundry room shelf.

And, downright silly things; a young cashier paged overhead for assistance.  “Could someone help the nice man on aisle seven find his nuts?”  “Did we have moronic acid?”  Which was really muriatic acid.  “Did we carry balusters?”  Further questioning revealed this meant ballasts for fluorescent lighting.

It was give-and-take between customers and employees.  We learned from each other.  What could be more meaningful than helping people?–




One too many skinned knuckles.  Too many stinging words from a boss that didn’t care about difficulties–they were just excuses.  Excuses crudely compared to anatomical excretory features, that every human possessed.

The tossed sledgehammer traveled in a steady arc, landed in a vacant lot with a dull thud.  Anger boiled over, settled to a steady drip.  It was February for cripe sakes, and he’d been sweating like a pig.  Larry looked around, embarrassed that anger engaged his persona for a few seconds.

“I’m going to get after it, today, Boss.”  Larry said that morning–before he left the garage.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Larry’s boss replied.  “Three rods in eight hours?  What was he paying him for?”

Empowerment was management’s favorite word.  What it really meant was-whatever happened, you were on your own to get it done.

All new subdivision homes required ten-foot ground rods for utility connections.  An easy task in soft soil.  These lots were back filled with a mixture of hard packed clay and slag from a nearby steel mill.  How could he have been so unlucky?  Things had to change in a hurry.

The answer came in the form of a mobile home anchor–a strong, thick steel rod, with an auger screw at the bottom, and a closed loop at the top.  By inserting a wrench handle through the top loop; adding a piece of pipe over the handle for leverage–the crude contraption worked slow, but steady, after breaking surface hard-pan.

It wasn’t standard issue tooling, but it was too short a walk from empowerment to unemployment.

Ghoulish specters of industrial waste lay hidden underground, ready to spring, without so much as a warning given to future generations.  Sacrifices made in the name of balance sheets and low-cost housing.

Across Thy Prairies Verdant Growing…

Clear-channel 50,000 watts of all-night radio, broadcasted across the vast Midwestern prairie and beyond.

John McCormick, “the man who walked and talked at midnight,” was there for our listening pleasure; with the best music and conversation to keep us company.

McCormick had a deep-timbered voice, that either soothed, or lulled listeners to sleep.  That was his job, I supposed.  I would have preferred raspy-voiced Wolfman Jack.

“We’re gonna’ play more music for you–all night long!  Can you dig It?”  Interspersed with a few Wolfman howls and I’d stay wide-awake.  Dad wouldn’t dig any of it.

My job was to assist with loading and deliveries.  More importantly, to keep my father awake on his all-night delivery route through four Illinois counties.

It seemed odd to me then, dad being such a firm disciplinarian, to see him kibitzing with  guys at the full-service, Standard Oil station, on a busy corner in Springfield, Illinois.  He was obviously a regular visitor.  It was around eleven, the station brightly wrapped in neon–topped with trademarked red torch.

An experience, not unlike seeing one of your teachers, away from school.  Refueled, candy bars and coffees in hand, off to the second, and most important stop.

The blue and white Chevrolet, faithful beast of burden, loaded past midnight; after the State-Journal Register’s press run.  There’d been a delay–probably a late-breaking story that couldn’t be left out.

Worried my father would fall asleep at the wheel, thus killing us both in a tragic accident, I kept talking.  Awkward talking–so awkward, it was more like an interview than normal father-son conversation.

“How many miles does this truck have on it?”  I asked.  “It’s got 127,000 miles right now,” Dad answered.

“That’s an awful lot of miles.”  I surmised.  “It’s all highway miles,” Dad answered.  “That makes a difference.  This route covers 200 miles per night–give or take.”

“What were the worst weather conditions you’ve encountered?”  I asked–not in exactly those words.

“Ice and snow–I’ve had to drop off on the shoulder to gain adequate traction.  There was more traction on the grass and gravel, than on the road; but, I made it home safely.  It was almost noon–barely time for a nap before starting out again.”

The next question was risky, but I went for it, anyway.  “What were some of your biggest boneheaded mistakes?”

“I missed some stops and had to go back.  Then, one night I accidently threw a delivery right through an unopened screen door.”

Route 66, blue highways, towns that railroads, interstates forgot, passed by all night long.

That night may have been the source of dad’s war story about a ride to Chicago, cruising at 80 mph on Rt. 66, in a Chrysler Airflow–after hitching a ride.  That struck me as daring–even though it happened before I was born.

Winter sun rose as we arrived home, just in time for a bite of breakfast, light conversation with mom, then straight to bed.  It had been a good night, we’d arrived well before noon.


Image, Standard Oil Indiana, from blogsite: PleasantFamilyShopping–





I formerly worked as a technician for a major communications company.  The area was called “The Stroll” because of the prostitutes and drug traffickers that hung out there.  During a repair visit, I sought refuge from a driving rainstorm in the back of my company van.   The defective piece of equipment, having been repaired, I attempted to exit.  The door handle wouldn’t budge.  I tried everything!  … pushed the button of the remote control “clicker” repeatedly. …Turned the child safety switch both ways. …Pulled the rear door handle.  Nothing worked to free me from my “prison.”  In an ordinarily busy part of town, no one was on the street.  If only a police car would drive by, I’d set off the panic alarm, then I’d soon be free.

It didn’t happen!  Minutes ticked by.  …Then an hour.  My efficiency rating was already shot to hell.  Was this my only job that day?  Panic crept in.  I could break a window.  The ruling would be, you were at fault.  …The penalty, two days off without pay.  I could take down the partition between the front and the back?  It would take a while.  All necessary tools were there.  Linebacker blocks to both doors failed.  It always looked easier on TV.  Nothing seemed to work.  Wait! was there a faint glimmer of hope?  A young couple crossed the street in front of me.  Should I hit the panic alarm?  This was really going to look stupid.  Look stupid, be damned!  I was doing it!

The alarm went off and the guy looked right at me.  I waved my arms wildly.  Good! He looked in my direction.  PLEASE, PLEASE, don’t just walk away!  He came over.  “Help, I’m locked in!” I hoped not to sound too desperate–even though I was.  The young man and his girlfriend came to my aid.  He pulled the latch from the outside and I was free!  He bore an uncanny resemblance to Charles Manson–had the same eyes.  His girlfriend slightly resembled Squeaky Fromm.  Maybe I imagined that in my desperation.  They were probably familiar with illegal substances.  That didn’t matter!  The young man’s name was Lee, that day he was my hero!