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Worn by time, but still tough as nails

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On the outskirts of a little Rhode Island village, there is a hardware store of the old type. There you might still find open galvanized metal bins that allow you to buy two ounces of grass seed, a handful of chicken feed or four finish nails, if that’s all you want. It is the kind of store favored by the older local sort, but whether there are enough of us left to sustain this particular operation or whether the newer arrivals can learn that they can buy just what they need and put it into brown paper bags all by themselves, still remains to be seen.

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A major attraction of this store — some spouses refer to it as an “attractive nuisance” — is the section where you can buy tools that are more valuable than any new ones. These tools have already been used. They have cut, drilled, hammered, sawn, planed, chiseled, tightened and loosened countless objects through the decades. And, after being subjected to both use and neglect, they still work just fine.

But the problem is, of course, that you go into the hardware store for a yard of some chicken wire and you have to walk right by the gauntlet of old Craftsman table saws with the real heavy cast-iron decks that don’t wiggle even a little bit when you are cutting heavy, newly sawn white oak. You pause, if only to acknowledge a really well-built piece of equipment and then your gaze inevitably falls upon all the hand tools with the wooden handles that might have been used by your grandfather or great-grandfather.

The tools often have the initials of their former owners, many long since departed, scratched into them, which only adds to their appeal. Appealing as these fashioned pieces of metal and wood might be, you have to ask yourself if you really need to have another old tool. Will you use it? Where will you keep it? But in the end you pick it up, heft it, fondly fondle it a bit and take it over to the register where the cute little clerk fights off a smirk while she peels off the handwritten price tag.

Occasionally there are used tools that I don’t recognize set out on a display table. Sometimes nobody can name some half-ancient thing for a while, like the smooth wooden piece about the size of a hockey puck with a ball bearing in its center that straps onto the palm of a hand. Then one day an old codger walked in, spied it and said aloud: “That’s sure a nice bobbin changer you have there; where did you get it?” A new mystery piece generally appears on the table soon after the last one has been successfully named, as if on schedule.

From time to time, you see pliers or cutting shears in real good shape, emblazoned proudly with the words: “Made in Prov., R.I.” Similarly stamped and found on other benches, shelves and tables were old Brown & Sharpe micrometers. Some files I came across were Nicholsons, perhaps made or inspected by my own great-grandfather, John Petrucci, at what was once among the world’s largest and advanced tool manufacturing plants located down by Harris Avenue and Dean Street in the capitol city. I smile because I remember an inside file maker’s joke that I was told more than 50 years ago.

A well-dressed woman comes into a hardware store and asks the clerk to recommend a good file to present to her husband on his birthday. The clerk surveys the assorted files in his display case and says to the woman: “How about this handy little bastard right here?” The woman is taken aback for a moment by the apparently rough language and points to another type of file and replies: “What’s wrong with that sonofabitch over there?” Grandpa loved to tell that joke! I kind of do, too.

There are poignant scenes to be witnessed in the used-tool section from time to time. But I hope not to experience another one. An older woman, probably a recent widow, came in to drop off a lot of hand tools with her 30-something daughter and 10-year-old grandson. They were jumbled together in a battered cardboard box and a handmade, unfinished, beat-up old dowel handled wooden toolbox. The tools looked very well used, perhaps by someone who spent a lifetime in the building trades.

In a voice strong enough to draw everyone’s attention, the younger woman said to a clerk: “We were going to bring all this junk to the transfer station, but it is heavy and we didn’t want to have to pay to throw it away. Glad we heard you might buy it from us.” A loud silence ensued in the used-tool section, as several of us present tried to avoid each other’s eyes at this disturbing statement, innocent though we all knew it was. I was flustered by the declaration. We all were, I think. I mean the thought of anyone’s tools ending up this way was distressing, let alone your own.

Later, I wished that I had spoken up and suggested letting the kid or his mom pick out at least a tool or two to remember the old man by. I almost talked myself into believing that they had actually already done so. But deep, deep down, I knew that they hadn’t.

As I left the tool section that day with one of the guys whose look I had avoided a few moments earlier, I think I saw that he had a tear in his eye. I sure know I had one in mine. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.

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