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The Wiles and Ways Of a Yankee Storekeeper

My Uncle Ralph, who had some fame as the Yankee Storekeeper, told me one time that the happiest word in his language was "hardware," and because he didn't know this until late in life he became grouchy and hard to get along with. This wasn't so, but it was typical of the way he said things. He said that people who come into a store wanting hardware always know just what they are after and can tell you the size, number, style, and all about it.

People who come into the store looking for socks, cookies, lamb chops, and sundries are never quite sure about it. It takes longer to wait on them, it is harder to please them, and then they like to come back and exchange whatever it was for the same thing, only blue, and often want their money back. My uncle had operated his country store many long years before he added hardware and found out about this.

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He'd had carpenters in to change his meat department around, and when they enlarged the cold box, he had a bigger blank wall on the grocery side. A drummer, which is what they called traveling salesmen then, suggested that my uncle use it for a display of hardware. The salesman said a friend of his traveled for a hardware company and he'd tell him to stop by.

There was no such thing as self-service then, but essentially that's what this hardware drummer introduced to my uncle. He came in a few days later, measured the new wall, drew a plan for a display on a paper sack, and went away, saying he'd return to set the thing up after the stock arrived.

So one morning the regular freight train set a huge wooden crate on the sidetrack platform along with the store's usual shipment, and the next day the drummer came to service my uncle's new hardware department.

All the tools and gimcracks and gadgets were hung on the wall, with axes, hammers, bit-braces, bucksaws, chisels, and such-like on prominent hooks. There was even a neat sign saying "Hardware." The drummer would come every month to service the display, and since customers would wait on themselves, my uncle had only to stand by the cash drawer and ring up the sales. And as he said, it was true. Anybody wanting eight-penny nails doesn't spend time looking at all the other sizes, but takes enough to finish the job and hurries home. If he needs a seven-eighths wood bit, he doesn't hang around trying on shoes.

It was great fun for me to pass a week of each summer with my uncle and make believe help him with the store. I didn't sell, but could sweep the floor, keep the shelves stocked, climb the ladder to get a lamp chimney, and I was permitted to help myself at the fruit counter. I also bagged sugar, weighing out five- and 10-pound bags from the 100-pound sacks it came in. Uncle said I was good at that, and if he ever heard of a sugar-bagging contest he'd enter me and pay my way.

One summer the train backed in a carload of barbed fence wire that my uncle had bought at a ridiculously low price, and he advertised a big sale on pasture wire. His price was low enough so he knew that every farmer in Somerset County would flock in to buy.

Instead of bringing the rolls of wire from the freight car into his big warehouse, he had me and two other local boys spend the afternoon kicking them out of the car into the open field behind the store. They stayed there, helter skelter, until the day of the sale, and from the dew and a shower or two they got enough moisture so the wire began to rust. Not too much, but enough to be seen by the customers.

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The farmers did flock in, and that whole carload of barbed wire was sold in minutes. I said something to my uncle about its being a shame the wire got wet, and he laughed in the high cackle of hilarity that used to make the pigeons fly off the stable roof. "Strategy," he said. "You see, boy, that wire is so cheap, every one of these farmers thinks it's got something wrong with it. New wire, without a blemish, at that price is impossible. So when they ask me, I just say it's weathered a mite, and they can see I'm telling the truth."

One summer my uncle had a big sale. It was what he called a package deal, and was meant to help him move a great deal of old stock. He mixed this old stock in with the new goods for the sale and cleaned house. He had some ladies' wear that had gone out of style in the 1890s, and after the sale they were gone. This sale was named Rainbow Sale, and the deal included multi-colored banners to hang on the store.

The week before the sale, it rained every day. My uncle had a page reserved in the weekly Bulletin, and at the last minute he changed Rainbow to Rain and offered customers a boat ride in his cellar. And any number of customers went to look down the basement steps to see if my uncle had a boat ready. To all who inquired, he handed a life jacket and said the boat was running late and it might be an hour or so.

My uncle would tell me that he liked being a storekeeper and never had any ambitions otherwise. But, he said, you have to pay attention, or something will ruin you. He frequently reminded me of the boy who came in for molasses.

My uncle sold good Barbados molasses, which came in a hogshead into which he inserted a pump that was cranked by hand. Customers brought their jugs, and molasses was 40 cents a gallon. This boy came in with a lard pail and my uncle pumped him a quart. As the boy started for the door, my uncle asked, "Where's your 10 cents?"

The boy said, "My mother put it in the pail."

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