Is This A Hardware Store?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As far back as I can remember, my family has owned a hardware store. My grandfather, father and I once had a chance to have our group picture taken in front of it, but we blew it.

Benson's Hardware is not a Hardware Fair. It has never tried to be one. Originally a general store, the hardware section is all that remains of what was once a prosperous meat and poultry shop, coal yard and feed lot.

The store itself is hard to find unless you've been there before. A jewelry store on one side, a jewelry display window on the other, the hardware store has no sign. My father says it doesn't need one.

From inside the store, you can watch people drive by, slow down and crane their necks. Some manage to park their cars, come in and ask, "Is this a hardware store?" Others don't and drive on by.

The store is old. In 1967, we gave out dozens of key rings promoting our 100th year. Today we have dozens left. There are other mementos of years gone by. There are faded photographs of people who have worked or visited in the store. A majestic framed picture of the founder, J.P. Benson himself, hangs on the wall. There is an old, red barn behind the store, preceded by well worn cobblestones where horses used to tread.

There are old things; there are newer things. I look in the back of the store and see my daughters' tricycles parked against the wall. The children will ride around and play pretend when they come to visit.

The focal point of the store is a group of three old chairs you first see when you come in. There was a time when the old men of the area would come to sit and talk, smoking their pipes and nodding their heads. Most of them are gone now.

I have memories of customers. One wanted glue for his false teeth. Another needed blue spray paint to change the color of his wife's shoes. The couple had to be at a wedding in 15 minutes. I remember watching a customer put two gallons of paint in the paint-shaking machine. He turned it on, and then stared in disbelief as the two cans of enamel flew out and exploded all over the floor. I cleaned it up.

I see three dated wine bottles on the shelf and am reminded of New Year's Eve. It was the culmination of 1978 and my mother decided to buy a bottle of wine and cook a pot of stew for her friends at the store. The following year saw a larger crowd, and by 1981, strangers were asking, "Is this the hardware store?"

For children who come to visit, the store can be a special place to explore. They can watch keys being made and glass being cut. On special occasions, there are jelly beans to eat. Go-carts, skateboards, models and projects -- they have all come through the door. A few complimentary nails and a bit of advice, they usually go out in better shape than they came in.

There are people down on their luck who come into the store. My mother lends them money and keeps a list of those who never pay her back. One man sent his wife to pay a $1.35 debt, while he was in the hospital dying of cancer.

There are barrels of bird feed, rabbit pellets and cracked corn waiting to be weighed out and sold. The president of Noxell sends his chauffeur to pick up 100 pounds of sunflower seeds every fall, while the children of the neighborhood come in and count their pennies, asking how many pounds of rabbit pellets they can get for a quarter or two.

The store is filled with memories for me. I have swept the floor, washed the windows and painted the shelves. I've repaired broken screens and waited on hundreds of customers who have come through the door. I have been hired and fired, and have quit more times than I care to remember. Once, I was let go for buying the five pounds of mixed nails I was supposed to separate and put in their proper containers.

Occasionally, things get lively. I have seen people thrown out of the hardware store and have thrown a few out myself. Sales people, city bureaucrats or customers -- it makes no difference. I watched as my father threw one man out for soliciting a bribe. He was the city building inspector, trying to make an extra buck.

My father owns the place, but he is no salesman. I have watched a customer come into the store and ask for a screwdriver. "Why do you need it?" my father will ask. "To pry a cork out of a bottle," the customer answers. "No," my father says, "you need a corkscrew. We don't have any. You can get one across the street." Apparently, the store across the street sells lots of things. I don't know. I've never been in there. Neither has my father. The people he sends over there rarely tell us. Most of them never come back.

The store has been broken into three times that I know of. Nothing has ever been taken. One person managed to drill a hole in the antique safe before he left. Another managed to pile up some hammers and saws before being chased away. A third unlucky soul cut himself coming in through the skylight and left some of his blood on the floor. He did manage to find a box of Band-aids in the medicine cabinet and used them before he left.

More than hammers and nails, lawn mowers and rakes, the hardware store is filled with the nuts and bolts of life. At least one person thought enough of it to leave a puppy in a basket at the door one early morning before the working day began. It was a good decision. My mother gave the dog to a customer who came in later that morning. He was a stranger to the store. We watched him drive by, slow down and crane his neck. Fifteen minutes later, he walked in and bothered to ask, "Is this a hardware store?" Little did he know he would walk out with a dog.

After 127 years in business, J.P. Benson's Sons Hardware in Hamden is closing its doors. Its owner, George W. Benson II, passed away Wednesday, June 1, 1994.

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