Eva Murray: In a good old hardware store (in memory of Everett Crabtree)

Posted:  Friday, February 28, 2014 - 9:15am

Not long ago I stood in my kitchen on Matinicus Island and called up one of our friendly neighborhood Rockland lumberyards and ordered some two-by-fours. The man on the phone was happy to talk to me; in fact, we greeted each other by first name. I needed my lumber delivered to the flying service at the Knox County airport in Owls Head (and of course I had ordered only stock that I was confident would fit into a Cessna 206). I suppose you don’t so easily call up some Big Box Store and talk about how you want “halfway decent” two-by-fours — yes, that is the precise grade of lumber I requested — and ask for a delivery to the little charter air service whenever it happens to be convenient.

If somebody called on the telephone with a paint question they’d often start with, “Lemme talk to Everett.”  Regular customers of a hardware store got to know which clerks knew about which particular sections.

I like hardware stores. I mean the old-time kind, where people work there because they want to, and some of them stick around for a few years or decades or the better part of a lifetime and really learn about building materials. I like tools, and I like paint, and I like a place with a million little drawers each with its own special little fitting or fastening inside (I recently had cause to discover the assorted spring drawer at E.L. Spear’s. That was fun.) The invention of the large rack of brilliantly-colored paint sample chips, not something which existed in my childhood — and believe me I would have noticed — we must count as a significant advancement of civilization.

In 1988-87 I worked at Passmore Lumber, which became E.C. Hart and Son (and is now E.B.S.) on the Camden-Rockport line. Everett Crabtree worked there, too. Everett died this winter; reading about him in the paper brought back a lot of good memories of the hardware store.

Exasperated customers would come in and want “the thingy that connects to the whatchamacallit.” As often as not, we could help; it just took patience and a little detective work. Sometimes it was something of a game of “20 questions” to narrow down the search: “First, are we talking plumbing or electrical…?”

Hardware store clerk is one of the few retail positions where the customer is not always right. In particular, I recall that a few customers who were not builders or knowledgeable DIY-ers had to be spoken to rather sternly when it came to matters of electrical safety, and in particular, wire that was way too light for the particular job. After I’d been schooled a few months and had learned a few things I did not hesitate to offer an occasional, “No, I don’t think that is what you want…”

It was my job to do the receiving, which meant I handled everything in the store as it moved between the wholesale distributor’s delivery truck and the shelf. I unloaded it all, checked the packing lists, dealt with people’s special orders, put price stickers on every tiny thing (yes, we did that back then) and stocked the shelves.

Customers handed me broken things, and I tried to figure out what the piece had once been, in order to find the replacement. The other guys who worked there, all much older, were very willing teachers. I helped people pick through piles of boards and two-by-fours,  even though I once got in trouble with management for doing so (“No picking through the on-sale two-by-fours….”) When people needed Number One Select pine boards, I picked carefully. By then, in the mid-1980s, there wasn’t much real “number one select” lumber to be had anymore.

Mostly, I worked out back, in a garage-like room with a roll-up door and just enough heat in the winter to let me take my mittens off sometimes. I loved it. Tractor-trailers from the big hardware wholesalers would carefully angle and squeeze back there and the drivers and I would unload the bins and crates that were designated for our store. Small items like hand tools, boxes of washers or conduit elbows arrived in plastic totes with hinged lids, the sort they use for lobster crates now. Once in a while some truly inexplicable item was in the mix, something even I had never seen before and no idea the use for. I’d go through the packing list and eliminate everything I recognized until the strange object remained; that is how I learned my business.

One day the packing slip indicated that we had received an amount of three-way netting. What the blazes was “three-way netting?”  ....And why is there no mention of this chicken wire on the invoice? Oh, I get it....

Another time somebody (perhaps Paul Dostie, who I remember took care of the electrical and plumbing supply departments) ordered a dozen quarter-inch brass ferrules, which would have occupied about a tablespoonful of space in the store. Somehow a part number got copied wrong or some numerals were transposed along the way; anyway, what we got was a large box containing a dozen bit braces. Old-fashioned hand tools do have their place in even the most modern of hardware stores, and Rockport is of course a boat-building community, but it would still likely take years to sell a whole box of bit braces.

I cut glass to size, I cut PVC pipe with a hacksaw so it would fit in a small car, I duplicated keys, I drilled holes in things for people (one lady who had purchased a multi-outlet strip asked, “Can you do it for me here? I don’t want to have to buy a drill just to do one five-minute job.” I thought that made sense.)

I unloaded truckloads of Sheetrock; it seemed we always had to hurry because it was inevitably starting to rain. This usually involved two of us up in some drafty loft of an outer building, climbing like monkeys. In those days my knees flexed faster and endured much. I unloaded cinder blocks and rolled roofing and plywood. I think the heaviest thing I put away by hand was joint compound, the “Sheetrock mud” that comes by the five-gallon pail and is enough to throw an older man’s back out first try. I put away whole pallets of 50-pound boxes of nails, one at a time, each box different-- and don’t mix them up! I shoveled snow like a madman, clearing the stack of two-by-fours, then the two-by-sixes, the two-by-eights, and so on. We had a lot of snow that winter and several of my February Mondays were taken up shoveling snow, while Gene Dinsmore and the others plowed the drivable spaces with a forklift.

The real unloading challenge was Everett and me and Benjamin Moore.  The paint would come in four-gallon cases aboard a tractor trailer, and Everett was the only person who could unload paint faster than I could. I would never have dreamed of saying this out loud at the time, but I think most of the other guys thought of Everett as “old,” and I was of course female, so we were presumed to be a tad less ready with the muscles. Turned out the opposite was true; maybe it was because we each had a point to prove, or it might have been as simple as that he was in very good physical condition and I loved my job, but we worked circles around most of the other guys. While they stood around comparing motorcycles and smoking and waiting for a forklift to be free so they could move a pallet of something, we’d just get the job done, one armload at a time.

There were the guys who worked in the store, and the guys who worked outside in the yard, and the office people; then, there was me, more or less in the middle. I filled in as needed anywhere if my work was caught up or if there were a lot of customers needing help — or, eventually, if somebody needed glass cut. I got pretty good at that. The yard was a much happier workplace than the office, and the yard guys and I had a pretty good time. We threw snowballs at each other and more or less acted like siblings.

In the winter, one of the fun jobs was knocking down the massive, stalactite-sized icicles that formed off the long roof before they could fall and clobber any customer. We’d go at them with two-by-fours and broomsticks and rocks. Once in a while when things were quiet we ate donuts in the back room where you weighed out nails by the pound, where the boys’ conversation was invariably about whatever outdoor hobby was in season, be it bow hunting, or motorcycles, or snowmobiles. They weren’t above a practical joke. A little mole or vole or sort of mouse-like thing had died and frozen outside, and was found the next morning by one of the guys, who thought to startle me by leaving it on my workbench. Being less inclined to shriek “eek a mouse” than certain other females, I conspired with the boys to move the poor little frozen mummy along to the office, where the woman wore high heels and life was quite different. I am not making any great claims to mature behavior there.

If somebody called on the telephone with a paint question they’d often start with, “Lemme talk to Everett.”  Regular customers of a hardware store got to know which clerks knew about which particular sections.

In 1987, with a new boss, we were all instructed to answer the phone with some long, corporate-sounding litany of “Good morning, E. C. Hart and Son, Everett speaking, how may I help you?”  I recall that Everett still picked up the phone and blurted out a quick “Hart’s” –like he’d done for years with “Passmore’s”--when nobody up the chain of command was hovering within earshot.

Everett didn’t spend a lot of time out back in the nail department bragging about his latest snow machine liked the young guys. He worked a steady pace, maintained his paint section, and kept a civil tongue (at least around ladies, and he considered me one).  I’m not sure he didn’t squint a bit at first wondering what the appeal of a lumberyard could be for a 23-year-old young lady who was allegedly licensed as a schoolteacher. On that note, a couple of the office women didn’t believe that I was a teacher at all, because my hair was normally a tangled mess, I dressed like ditch digger, and I ordered too many Snow and Nealley axes on the employee discount. I left the hardware store when I got the teaching job on Matinicus. Everett offered no comment, just a smile and a “Good luck.”

Everett Crabtree may or may not have approved of my attempt to race him unloading the paint truck, but he treated me as though he was my uncle. He was a gentleman and a good example.

I run into a few of the other guys from Passmore’s once in a while, as hardware store guys often just move around from one to another. At the Rockland ferry terminal a few days ago I was shooting the bull with Eric, who drives a truck for Viking Lumber; he was headed to North Haven with a delivery as I was on line for Matinicus with mixed freight in a U-Haul. Eric works with Kenny who was one of the snowball-throwing boys from my lumberyard days in the 1980s. We couldn’t resist a little nonsense in memory of the old days.

I’ll not say anything negative about people who work in big box stores, but an independent hardware store has more potential to be a fun place. Once in a while, it just might feel like a bunch of uncles and brothers.

Eva MurrayEva Murray lives on Matinicus


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