Where It All Began
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It was 1972 when the owner of a local hardware store asked me, "You're in here so much, would you like come to work for me?" My affirmative answer began an 8-year stint that exposed me to a wealth of information that serves me well to this day. It was there that I got introduced to Gilson outdoor power equipment and developed an affinity for their snowblowers. Back then there was talk in the industry of "home centers". They had not made their way to northern New England yet and the scourge of today's big box home centers was beyond comprehension.

In 1977 I came across a condensed version of an article from a now defunct magazine. I dare say that I had forgotten about it for a decade or two. As an engineer and then a home owner that hardware store education repeatedly paid off. Somewhere along the way as my snowblower hobby grew beyond my wildest dreams the recollection of this article came to me. Finally and with the help of a reference librarian an archive copy was retrieved. As I read it for the first time in over 30 years I was transported back to a simpler time with many fond memories, I hope you enjoy it.

Hardware U.----
The Great American
Learning Center
William D. Ellis

THE WORST HO-HUM lN TOWN is a guy bragging about his school. But in my case, there's some excuse: I attended Hardware U. It was the greatest-no entrance exams, no required courses, no alumni fund, no building drives, and a tremendous curriculum.

If you're interested, sign up how; a lot of its branch campuses are closing. Why? Well, because everybody is getting into the act-discount stores, drugstores, grocery chains. But none of them offer the classic education. All you get is a sign reading, "Instructions inside the box

In the Ivy League hardware store, on the other hand, along with the merchandise that might cost three to four dollars, you might pick up twenty to thirty dollars' worth of instruction. For example, say you went into Vanderhoof's Hardware Store in Concord, Mass., and ordered a dozen large bolts for fastening a two-by-eight plank onto a, cement footing. Mr. Vanderhoof would disappear to the back of his store and return clanking 12 items you never saw before in your life.

"There must be a mistake, Mr.Van. I said bolts"

"You don't want bolts."


"No." The towering Dutchman wasn't the kind of professor who welcomed student input. He instructed with heavy-jowled author-ity, so you didn't get doubts in the middle of the job. "Y'see, what y'shoulda done," he would say, "is set your bolts in your forms before you poured your footings. But now what you got to do-take and star-drill down this much. Then set these in the holes, head first; Now take and drive this collar down. Spread these claws, like this. Now y'can't pull that bolt out. Y'understand?"

Mr. Van ignored the pressure of arriving customers until he was sure you had it. And none of the customers interrupted. They didn't mind monitoring the information; they would need it sooner or later. (Vanderhoof knew that, too, and talked loud enough.) The final exam would be whether or not you loused up the job, which he would eye-ball as he drove by your place. You felt some pressure to pass that test.

Vanderhoof and his two assistants always knew who was next, so no one worried about losing his turn. That meant you were free to- walk around the store, which was a hands-on seminar in just about everything.

Items weren't wrapped or chained to the wall; you could fuss with a magnetic nail locator until you'd taught yourself how to find the studs behind a plaster wall; You could teach yourself how to operate a pipe bender, a staple gun and a lot of new tools you didn't even know existed.

If your turn at the counter didn't come too soon, you could wander over to the fishing tackle, where Bill Robinson was selecting a line, and pick up some biology. Nick Macone would be explaining to him, "No. Up where you're going, they got those stocked bass. You can go to a lighter line. These stocked bass grew up with a milder attitude because they haven't had to fight for survival as fingerlings." Then Nick would go into their feeding and mating habits.

Another course was economics. If you were lucky enough to be in Vanderhoof's when Mr. Higgins was in for materials for house building, you'd witness a tour de force of both purchasing and selling.

Mr. Vanderhoof would tot up the, estimate in front of everybody. No hurry, everbody was interested. Then, silently, he'd turn the estimate sheet around on the counter so it I would be right side up for Mr. Higgins. Mr. H. would take out a pair of glasses and read it standing up. After he'd read it over once, he'd take a slip of paper from his chest pocket. His glance would bounce back and forth between his own paper and the one on the counter, while he murmured "Hmm," "Um-hm" and "I see." Then he'd study it a little longer.

When the silence stretched out until it hurt, Mr. Vanderhoof would offer, "Of course, Jim, if you were to buy for this house, and at the same time for the two others you're building. I could . . ." He'd turn the list around to face himself and study it. Then he'd pencil onto it two percent, "I could do this."

They'd both study the two percent as if it might move. Then Higgins would say, "Van, your estimate' for the cable is pretty good if . . . Did you say that was the steel-clad?"

"Uh, no. I didn't. That would be molded-composition type."


After a substantial pause, Mr. Vanderhoof would venture, "Uh, Jim. . . . Did you say you could accept all this stuff one delivery, instead of piecemeal as you need it?"

"No, I didn't. But we could."

"In that case, maybe that price could get you the steel-clad cable."

And so it went. With the suspense mounting for all of us, they would go down the list in that polite but alert manner, forging a deal.

There were, of course, more practical lessons to be learned at Hardware U. If your problem was, say, anything electrical, two or three customers in the store could show you how to wire a garage, put in a new fuse box or fix a washing machine.

On plumbing: Van didn't like to see a man use up more fittings than he'd really need, so he would diagram your whole layout for you on the back of his order pad. The back of a sales slip from Vanderhoof's Hardware was a clear working document. If you were to collect 500 of them into a printed book, you'd have a really practical illustrated text on engineering, plumbing, electrical work, construction, tree trimming, log splitting, driveway paving, bicycle repairing and general survival.

All this came with the merchandise. And it still does - if you know how to find the right place. That's not so easy. First, you may not be able to find any name on the store. It may be peeled off, painted over, or covered by a Dutch Boy White lead sign. The owner figures the people who need him already know where it is. He's right: People drive from several towns away, right past super-discount stores, to get there.

Another way to recognize the right kind of place from the outside is by what will appear to be the worst merchandising savvy in the world. With big-ticket items like garden tractors and small snowplows being offered inside, the item featured most prominently on a sidewalk sign will be something like "Fishing Licenses $4." But to go in and get that four-dollar, item, a man exposes himself to somebody who is just unpacking a shipment of $40 reels.

Inside, you can identify the right kind of place by a path grooved into the floorboards so deep that the nailheads rise in little islands of woodgrain. The walls are floor-to-ceiling drawers with specimens of contents stapled on the fronts-cup hooks, hinges, screw eyes, corner braces, pipe connectors-the links that hold the world together. There's a scale for weighing bulk nails.

If anybody comes up to you and says, "May I help you?" you're probably in the wrong kind of place. That omission is not arrogance. They know they can help because the hardware store always designs itself to the particular community.

THERE ARE no commencement exercises at Hardware U., but when a fellow grows up and goes off, he tends to want to stop by and let the people there know he's leaving town. I stopped by on my way to the! station, but when it came to saying good-by,-well, Van was busy explaining the merits of mulching oak leaves versus raking them up; his assistant was filling a big order for Mr. Higgins. I walked on down to the railroad station and left town.

It was a lot of years before I got back. I walked around looking for familiar faces among the strangers. I went into the drugstore to announce, "I'm back." But there was a new proprietor from out of town. At the post office, I heard that Arthur Helsher had been promoted into Boston. At the school, Miss Rideout and Miss Graves had retired.

It looked as if Tom Wolfe was right-you can't go home again. But then I went down to Vanderhoof's. It turns out the hardware has an alumni department with a memory and a heart. Oh, there's a little guarded reserve for a while as they spar around to see if you got too big for your undergraduate days and be-came a big shot. But if you get past that, the real hardware-type hardware store has alumni homecoming day not once a year, but every Saturday. And everybody you ever knew comes by. And Mr. Vanderhoof's sons behind the counter even remember you still have a charge account there.

Unfortunately, I never got my degree from Hardware U.; almost everything I touch still turns to scrap. But I'm just one case. I know people who owe to the hardware store the knowledge of how to build their houses, their furniture and their careers. Teachers like Vanderhoof are masters at showing how to keep the nation built, repaired, painted, plumbed, electrified and paved. I was home last summer. People in Concord are saying there's hope the Vanderhoof grandsons may take over the store.

It is with great fondness that I recall my days as a young member of the faculty at the local hardware U. For some strange reason when I'm at the Home Depot people will walk up to me with questions thinking that I work there. Suddenly I'm taken back through a time portal as I explain the difference between one item or another or offer a suggestion to their problem. When I retire maybe I'll just buy an orange apron and hang around.

This page is dedicated to the faculty of Hardware U. past & present.

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Created February 2008 - Updated September 20, 2021