A hardware store in a nearby town recently announced it was going out of business after having served that community for over 100 years.
An auction of remaining inventory was scheduled as the final step before the owners closed the doors for the last time. This news tugged at a heartstring because I grew up in a hardware family with a store much like the one that closed. That similarity set me to reflecting on why this kind of retail business holds a special fondness for me.
Ours was one of those stores into which visitors from out of town would wander wide-eyed, apparently thinking they had stepped back in time, with the oiled wood floor and high ceiling. There was no air conditioning in the summer and a gas heater suspended from the ceiling kept the winter chill at bay. In addition to the full line of hardware – plumbing, electrical, nails, bolts, wood stoves, livestock harness, plows, and paint – we also offered large and small appliances as well as toys during the Christmas season. And unlike the “box stores” that dominate the retail landscape today, we sold most items by the unit. If someone needed three number six wood screws, they did not have to invest in a box of a hundred.
Yet while our inventory was extensive, it was the customers who occupied the important part of the equation. Many of them were friends, and the majority we knew by name. In fact, most of our regular customers had an open account, so they would charge a purchase and pay for it at the end of the month. And it was this regularity in their shopping with us throughout the year that is especially significant for me.
Because we might sell to the same customer plumbing supplies for a water leak in the springtime, screen wire for his porch in the summer, ammunition for his squirrel rifle in the fall, and toys for his children at Christmas, we were able to serve him throughout the seasons of the year. And when this interaction was multiplied by the many customers we had, it gave concrete meaning to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, that for “everything there is a season.” It was a vivid reminder that there is a time to make home repairs and a time to sit on the porch, a time to be outdoors and a time to be with family.
The seasons of our lives are certainly marked with different needs, and being able to provide some of those for our neighbors as they moved through the year gave a depth of meaning to what we were about. Ram Dass once wrote, “We’re all just walking each other home.” And that notion provides an important perspective here. Weighing nails or measuring a plow line or counting bolts are just part of commercial activity. But when we see them as accompanying a friend on his journey through the seasons, they take on a sacred quality.