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The Hardware Store: Its Stock and Trade Is Still a Good Story

Did Monkeys Invent the Monkey Wrench?: Hardware Stores and Hardware Stories

By Vince Staten

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Simon & Schuster

238 pp., $21

Recently a cable that hoists my garage door when I hit the remote control busted with a spectacular thwaaaang!

I knew just what to do. I headed for the hardware store downtown. At first, I couldn't find anything that looked as if it would do the job. But before long, a clerk wandered over, asked if he could help, and led me down just the right crowded aisle in the small store. He even threw in a little installation advice, something I wouldn't have dreamed of getting at a big home-improvement chain store. My problem was solved.

Hardware stores may be stacked to the ceiling with gizmos, do-dads, and whatchamacallits, a lot of it unrecognizable. But that isn't what they're really selling. They're selling solutions.

That's one of the conclusions of Vince Staten's entertaining book "Did Monkeys Invent the Monkey Wrench?: Hardware Stores and Hardware Stories." A reader will come away with new respect for hardware men, along with a lot of fascinating trivia about the people and products you find when you walk through the doors.

All this information is in the service of a higher purpose, of course: a chuckle or two. Staten grew up working in his father's hardware store in Tennessee, and he has never forgotten the sights, smells, sounds, and quirky characters he encountered.

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Example: He describes one clerk as having pants "hung low in the hardware-store style that was popular long before grunge made the scene." And he quotes an owner who explains his pricing thus: "Buying quality merchandise is like buying oats.... If you want nice, clean, fresh oats, you must pay a fair price.... If, on the other hand, you want oats that have already been through the horse, then the price would be considerably less."

The term hardware, we learn, goes back to at least the 16th century when goods were sold in three basic categories: foodstuffs, softlines (clothing and other textiles), and hardlines (stuff that lasts). Staten tours us through a typical hardware store and the history of some of the staples found there, from hammers, light bulbs, and chain saws to Phillips-head screwdrivers, and, yes, monkey wrenches (actually, he tells three tales of how the monkey wrench might have gotten its name).

Even veteran hardware-store mavens may clear up a few mysteries. (Ten-penny nails, for example, were never sold 10 for a penny, as most of us assumed. The "10d" stamped on them goes back to medieval England and means that 1,000 of these three-inchers weigh 10 pounds. Gadzooks!)

Staten predicts that hardware stores will survive alongside the giant chains like Wal-Mart because of convenience (they're usually close by) and service the big guys can't match. Besides, with general stores a thing of the past, the hardware is the place to meet folks and find out what's happening in town - and hear a yarn or two.

"Hardware is talking to people about the flash flood down in Rogersville," explains Staten, or "listening to the story of the commode that exploded or the roof that creaked right before it leaked."

You don't need to love tools or be a devotee of TV's "Home Improvement" to find yourself zipping through these pages. In writing about the crazy challenges people come up against trying to maintain their homes, and the place they go for answers, Staten captures a part of everyday life close to just about every American.

Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.

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