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Little shop of sawers. Tool store shows that nothing's ever too old to be useful

ALADDIN lamps, bush hooks, clamps, and drawknives; hookaroons and spokeshaves; wooden planes from Poland; and hand-forged chisels from Austria - if it's a tool, Rick Hartom will probably have it. His Timeless Tools shop here in Marquette, a small town nestled on the southern shore of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, houses a seemingly unlimited supply of such tools.

``I guess I have more than 10,000 items in this shop, and I know where every one of them is,'' Mr. Hartom says matter-of-factly. With his long hair tied in a ponytail, he looks more like a young man from the 1960s than a 35-year-old businessman.

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``I offer services no one else does. As far as I know, this is the only place in the country that not only sells a great variety of tools, but also carries used and reconditioned tools and replacement parts.''

Hartom doesn't believe in throwing things away: ``There are a lot of good tools that just need a new handle or a bit of sharpening,'' he says. So he sells not only new tools, but replacement parts like blades for planes or wicks for lamps. And if you bring your broken ax to him, he'll custom fit it with a new hickory handle for just $2.

TRADE conferences, limited advertising, and a catalog sent to 6,000 customers have spread the news about Timeless Tools. Requests come in from all over the country for tools not available on the market anymore or for used tools that will sell for much less than the new ones do.

A man calling from Vermont wants a broad ax of specific measurements. Hartom rummages through his supply and finds a good one he can refurbish. A new ax would cost $150. This one will be $85.

A Texas man's search for a Pulaski Ax, a combination of adz and single-bit ax used for firefighting, ends with a call to Timeless Tools. Hartom has two on hand and will ship one out the same day. A few days later it will arrive on a Texas ranch.

Anyone looking for an out-of-the-ordinary tool will most likely find it here. In 1890, says Hartom, 104 ax manufacturers existed in this country. Today there are only three left. Nonetheless, 50 styles of axes are still being produced.

But average hardware stores will carry only the most common two types and stock only tools that move quickly. Hartom, in contrast, provides service to people who need specialty tools, who look for the unusual.

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Sometimes he finds items for collectors. One of his customers is from West Virginia and buys pond saws, which were used for cutting blocks of ice from rivers, lakes, and ponds. ``When I come across one, I drop him a line,'' says Hartom.

A man from Nebraska, who is on the lookout for embossed axheads, writes several times a year to see if Hartom has found one he doesn't yet have.

Half of his customers, however, come from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Hartom finds it natural that locals frequent his shop and that Timeless Tools is situated here.

AT the turn of the century, this heavily forested area was flourishing, because of its rich iron and copper mines. There was an unlimited supply of wood, and rich mining lords had fancy mansions built. Craftsmanship and exquisite woodwork are witness of that era.

Widows clear out their husbands' tool sheds and workshops. The tools end up at auctions and house sales. Hartom has a dozen pickers who buy them, and he in turn sells them to customers who build their own houses or to companies that build log homes. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is still 90 percent forested, and wood is a common commodity for building or heating.

Hartom believes there is a resurgence of craftsmanship in the building trade: ``People are dissatisfied with what's available in the building market. Many are building their own homes.''

To start with, these builders buy how-to books - Hartom has about 100 titles. A few months later big orders for tools begin to come in.

THIS is how Hartom himself got interested in tools. After many visits from Detroit to a high school friend who had settled in the Upper Peninsula, he decided in 1977 to homestead in the small hamlet of Deerton, where a group of like-minded counterculture people were settling.

His house, a run-down log cabin, needed repair. But neither in this area nor elsewhere could he buy the necessary specialized tools needed for the task.

He finally found what he was looking for at farm auctions, but many of the tools were broken and needed new handles. In those days Hartom also used Aladdin lamps. Now he has an extensive selection in his shop.

After two years of primitive living, the young homesteader returned to Detroit to finish his studies in special education. But his father's illness quickly steered him in a new direction. He took over the family's wholesale hardware business and began a small sideline of used and specialty tools. That's where the idea for Timeless Tools was born.

Hartom's return to the Upper Peninsula in 1981 made the idea a reality. He settled in Marquette and then proceeded to open a small tool shop here.

Since then he has moved twice, and now a handsome two-story brick building - at one time a family tavern - contains six rooms filled with tools, a woodworking shop in the basement, and family living quarters on the first floor.

HARTOM is happy his whole life is contained in one place. ``My work allows me to live the kind of life style I believe in. My daughter, Jenna, who is now 5, has been in the shop with me since she was two months old.''

This fall, when Hartom's wife Jeannine, who teaches speech therapy at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, will pursue a PhD program in Detroit, Jenna will stay with her father and keep him company in his store when she is not in school.

For the past two years Hartom has been taking classes in woodworking. ``Using tools myself helps me explain their use better to my customers,'' he says. He is also tempted to start making some tools himself, though this specialized, time-consuming trade would be merely a labor of love, not a moneymaking enterprise.

Hartom's long-term goal is to combine his knowledge of tools, his special education skills, his experience with his father's illness - and his wife's training - to start up a sheltered workshop. ``I'd like to set up a workshop with tools handicapped people can use safely and develop attractive designs for items they could make,'' he says. Whatever he does, he's sure his work will have to do with tools.

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