For whatever reason, I’ve always had a fascination with hardware stores. Not the modern franchised versions or big box stores, but the old-time Mom and Pop family-owned stores that carried everything from soup to nuts.
As a child, my Uncle Bill knew he had found a kindred spirit in his only niece and took me to his favorite hardware store on Saturday mornings. My aunt never understood the obsessive compulsion we shared, so she stayed home and cleaned the kitchen while my uncle and I spent delightful hours sorting through bins and shelves that contained things we didn’t need but coveted anyway.
Growing up in south Florida, Pompano Mercantile was the go-to hardware store of our little town. Even now, if I close my eyes, I can still envision the old two-story clapboard structure near the railroad tracks and the smell of leather that hit your senses upon entering. The back half of the building had upstairs office space while the front half was completely open all the way to the fancy metal ceiling and filled with an assortment of farm goods; seed planters, horse collars, cross-cut saws, ox yokes and the like. A rolling ladder across the back wall accessed items hanging from metal hooks. Hoes, shovels, and pitchforks leaned against the side wall, right next to wooden seed bins where beans, watermelon and seed corn could be scooped out and weighed into paper bags. The Mercantile is where I bought my first pair of western boots (black leather with side inserts of blue thunderbirds) and a new bridle and bit for the horse I rode on the weekends. In my memory it remains the top pick of hardware stores, although I heard it finally closed in the late 1990s.
After moving to the hamlet of Love, I found new places to fuel my never-ending quest of hardware. While delivering the Backroads newspaper in the 1980s, I discovered the “plunder room” at Valleymont Market, a country store in Nellysford. I asked the owner, Freddie Phillips, if he had any cloth wicks for oil lamps and he said he thought there were some in a back room and to go have a look. Eureka! Not only did I find the wicks but a plethora of other goods stashed in old wooden apple crates. It was like opening gifts on Christmas morning and I left with more than I came in with.
Everyone said I missed the best hardware store in the area when Martin’s Store, located at the junction of routes 151 and 6, closed before I moved here. Rats!
But Stuarts Draft had Engelman’s and Cohron’s Hardware across the road from each other on Main Street and I was once again blessed to buy nails from a circular metal bin and glass globe replacements for my growing collection of oil lamps.
Cohron’s Hardware, run at that time by Ward Lee and Hilda Cohron and later by their two sons, Larry and David, had deer heads and fish mounts on the walls along with everything else hardware-ish. I know they still laugh at my ignorance about turnip seed when I went in one day and asked Hilda for some. She pulled out the wooden drawer that housed the seed and asked how much I wanted. Never having sown turnips before, Billy didn’t advise as to how much I should buy, so I said, “Oh, maybe a pound or so.” Never batting an eye, Hilda said, “Do you think that will be enough?” When I came home and handed Billy the bag, he laughed at my uninformed knowledge of how miniscule turnip seed really is. I kid you not, we sowed those same seeds for at least 15 years afterwards and were awash in turnips!
Although they aren’t hardware stores, the community dumpster located in Sherando has a policy of storing “good stuff” on the left side of the container for anyone interested and The Montebello Exchange (a three-sided structure housing repurposed items) is high on my list for good reads, kitchen gadgets, and assorted bric-a-brack. One winter I found a two-pack of L.L.Bean wool socks, still in their original cellophane packaging, that fit perfectly and warmed my tootsies that whole season.
The most amazing of all hardware stores is found in the little town of Kidron, Ohio. Lehman’s is the granddaddy of Amish hardware, combining four pre-Civil War buildings under one soaring roof that still offer woodfired cook stoves, clothesline poles, kitchen gadgets, and even windmills if you’re so inclined! I went there in the early 1990s when my mother and I visited her youngest sister in Ohio. My aunt knew I had this crazy hardware fetish and decided on a trip to Lehman’s. I was in heaven! After hours of browsing, my mother came looking for me, exclaiming, “What could you possibly be doing in here for this long!” What can I say… it’s a weird sickness.
Since writing for the Gazette, I have found a new haunt closer to home. Crozet Hardware Company is an actual old-time hardware store right in the heart of Crozet village. The first time I walked inside, a wave of nostalgia carried me back to the Pompano Mercantile of my childhood. Perusing the aisles, a polite young man asked if he could help me find something and proceeded to escort me to where the items were located. Everything from loose seeds by the pound, axes, plumbing supplies and oil lamps, this store has it all! Thanks to owner Jeff Birckhead and staff for keeping an old tradition alive in the heart of Crozet by way of the Crozet Hardware Company.