Remembrance of hardware past

No tale of living in Powelton Village in Philly as a kid can be complete without Shuman’s.

I’ve always had a thing for places that sell stuff I can beat on, smash other things with, or cram into crevices. Over the years, I’ve been blessed with sterling examples, my earliest hardware experience being Shuman’s on the 3400 block of Haverford Ave., three or four doors down from the shop where I bought my 10-cent Walt Disney comics each month.

Shuman, in his I guess mid 30s back then (at 10 years old you have little experience with figuring ages past 16), was jaunty, snappy, confident, the first Jewish proprietor I’d run into (without my knowing his background) and still in my mind the exemplar.

He had everything that has ever existed in the hardware world. Every item resided in its place, and he knew that place precisely. Objects in each ceiling-high shelved drawer were labeled, not with inked paper, but with a sample of the included object that was screwed, glued or stapled to the drawer-front for easy eyeballing. (Over the years I’ve come to recognize that as a signal of hardware competence.)

It was sad to return with Linda in the early ’80s and find a thin, slightly twisted old man, the physical remnant of Shuman, still running the place. He was out of half the stuff we needed and tried to palm off damaged or inappropriate leftovers. (A couple years before I met Linda, he’d tried to induce her to run off to Europe with him. Well, he still had taste.) 

He looked like he’d likely had a stroke, but even given that, I had trouble dealing with his late-term caginess. Another decade later, he was gone (up, I hope). Trash blew in the deserted doorway.

In my teens, still living in Powelton, I developed a fascination with refinishing furniture at a time when arcane restoration practices recommended using pumice to provide the perfect, smooth surface between coats of traditional varnish, which was created from shellac and linseed oil, boiled in turpentine. (Did you know that shellac is “a resin secreted by the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand”? Only discovered that in recent years. I find that origin somewhat … disconcerting).

Varnish was hell to work with, requiring a steady, careful hand while drawing a boar-bristle brush through a gummy film, to prevent bubbles from forming.

Varnish also dried sloooowly, creating a long period for dust to settle while it solidified. Champion varnishers of the 19th century constructed hermitically sealed rooms which they entered naked to prevent contamination. (I find that disconcerting as well. I mean, you open the door and there’s this nude, wrinkled old guy holding a bottle and brush: what exactly….)

I never went that far, in fact I did most refinishing in the back yard. I also never succeeded in creating a varnish finish without bubbles. I don’t have a steady, careful hand.

I bought most of my sanding, preparation and finishing materials from C.L. Presser’s, on Market St. near 36th. Why not at Shuman’s? Had a change come over either Shuman or my outlook with the years? Nothing that I can put my memorial finger on. It’s especially puzzling to consider, because Presser’s was an often infuriating company to deal with. 

The store was far larger than Shuman’s, and whereas Shuman worked from behind the traditional counter, much of the Presser’s stock was in the open for customer browsing – if you could comprehend how it was arranged. Service was glacial  and … “peculiar” is the kindest word. It took time to unearth a salesperson, more time to make your wishes clear as he shambled in Dickensian languor through the aisles, still more extended time to complete your transaction. 

Presser’s had no cash registers. The clerk jotted your purchases on a paper slip, inserted your money and the slip into the side opening of a two-inch-wide metal cylinder which he twisted closed and slipped, much like an artillery shell, into a pneumatic tube that whisked it to a troll in the basement. After consulting with his billygoat gruff, the troll blasted the cylinder back to the first floor with your change. The system worked well for the store personnel, apparently; absurdly for the customer.

So naturally Presser’s, given the predictability of human response, vanished as updated customer service practices took hold across the retail hardware industry.

Ha! Today, Presser’s thrives as a yet larger hardware emporium farther up Market. St. Linda and I bought copper screening there a couple decades back. No pneumatic tubes. Purchases were rung up at a central cash register manned, in mild despair, by Marley’s ghost. 

Now we come to Kane and Brown, in Germantown, one of Philly’s most ancient and storied neighborhoods. Shuman’s was a superb hardware store, outstanding. But Kane and Brown … Kane and Brown ascended into the celestial realm of small business.

When I shopped there in the early 1970s, while my first wife Julie and I were dis- and re-assembling our Morris St. house, the owners had held the place for only half a dozen years. But in buying the business, they had inherited an unparalleled asset – Wes.

Wes, in his 80s – pot-bellied and cigar-smoking – stood like a mouldering monument at the left end of the counter in his stained undershirt, waiting for you to ask the Question. It might be “I’m looking for …?” “Where is …?” “What’s the best way to …?” 

Wes knew the answer. Always. That would be impressive in anyone. What was unique with Wes was that he knew the answer to the question you should have asked. How many times did I fumblingly say, “Wes, I’m doing this complicated, unlikely diddlyfutz, and I need an obscure X.” Wes would wave his cigar and state simply, “No, you need Y,” then explain exactly why I needed Y and precisely how it was to be used in a situation I was barely able to articulate.

The sales were rung up by one of the owners behind the counter – Mort – who immediately wrote down any item that needed reordering in a lined notebook. How he kept track of the inventory is beyond me, for besides the large storefront set back from Wayne Ave., Kane and Brown controlled a scatter of small storage buildings throughout the surrounding blocks, including one narrow structure that held mostly metal trash cans of various sizes.

For me, hardware stores signify more than nostalgia. The best bring out lasting reverence. Shuman’s is long gone. So is Kane and Brown. Yet lumbering Presser’s flourishes, with a dandy Facebook presence that boasts 120 years of continuing family ownership. 

Some things in life defy reason or  justice.

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