Disaster!! My local town's hardware shop has closed down!
Yet another small business falls to the malaise of
the large out-of-town megastore.
I always feel a little bit cheated when this happens because I make
a deliberate point of using such small shops and businesses in preference
to the larger enterprises - but then I also realise that I'm probably
in the minority these days.
Of course, we all know why small businesses like these
close down - it's because they can't compete on price with the big
boys. But then again the big boys can't compete on service.
My profession is an eclectic mix of crafts. There are times when
I have to take on the role of an engineer, a jeweller, a plumber,
a carpenter, a painter...even a chemist. In order to carry out my
work I need a vast array of resources in small quantities, readily
available at a moment's notice. There's simply no way I could even
begin to consider stocking the vast selection of odds and ends I'm
likely to need, so I rely on a collection of other small businesses
to retain the stock instead - and when one of them disappears I
soon begin to feel the effects. It comes to something when I have
to drive miles out of town just to buy a tube of threadlock, or
phone someone up in London just to order a couple of inches of brass
Not only that, but you don't get the personal service
- or those little cameos of interaction that brighten up one's day.
For instance - the hardware shop had a poster on the wall exhorting
the value of 'protective footwear'. It did this quite graphically,
with a grizzly picture of a horribly crushed foot. When I first
saw it I remarked how unpleasant a sight it was first thing on a
Monday morning - and one of the guys behind the counter said "You're
lucky - my lunch looks like that". This was closely followed
by the other guy piping up with "Oh yeah? My wife looks like
The best you can expect in a megastore (if you can find anyone to
talk to in the first place) is a plaintive "I'll have to find
someone who knows".
Last time I was in one of these stores I noticed a spotty shop-assistant
who appeared to be at a loose end, so I buttonholed him and asked
him if he had a cobbage wrench in stock (PS. there's no such thing).
He asked me what it was for, so I said, completely poker-faced,
"For undoing cobbages". We then both spent a very entertaining
couple of minutes examining the spanner display.
Bless him - every now and again he held up a suitably strange-looking
tool and said "Is this any good?".
I'm not completely heartless though - I bought a screwdriver. A
very small screwdriver. A very cheap, small screwdriver.
(Karma note: I should have known better...first time I used it,
the tip broke off).
But it's not just about the personal service you
get from a small store, it's about flexibility...and a detailed
knowledge of the stock.
There can't be many megastores that allow you to try out expensive
tools for a few days, or buy single screws - and no-one who works
in those places understands the subtle humour behind asking for
contact adhesive "in a handy nasal dispenser".
Small shops are often run by enthusiastic owners -
you can take in a small piece of metal, slap it on the counter and
tell them that you want something like it, but longer, in brass
and with a little curve just about there. Nine times out of ten
they'll nip out back, and after a couple of minutes scuffling about
- punctuated by the odd "Now I know I've seen something like
that" - return with something that'll do the job.
Even better, you can often spend a good ten minutes describing in
some detail a certain kind of 'thingamabob' that fits onto another
kind of 'widget' and allows a sort of 'doo-dah' to dangle off it
until such times as the 'thingamabob' is given a quick tug and the
'widget' locks it in place...sort of thing - at which point you'd
be told, quite authoritatively, that what you want is a self-locking
deck cleat...and probably asked if you wanted it in black or galvanised.
More often than not the shopkeeper is a mine of useful information
too, and having explained how you intend to modify and use the thing
you're buying they'll nearly always have some pertinent advice to
share - even if it's an "Oooh, I wouldn't do that if I were
If you're extremely lucky you'll find that any customers
hanging around will pitch in too. These places are often frequented
by other craftsmen and engineers - so much so that they can sometimes
be like exclusive Gentlemen's clubs...only without the comfy chairs...and
the bar...and the uniformed flunky at the door. OK, so not much
like a club at all then.
These conversations can throw up reams of information, much of it
gleaned through first-hand experience. Have a care though, you can't
rush these things - there's a natural order for the ceremony of
the 'Passing of the Skills'.
It begins with the novice announcing the nature of the project in
hand at the altar (also known, to the uninitiated, as the counter).
This is received in quiet contemplation by all present - thereafter
the first to speak being the Grand Shopkeeper himself. It's his
role to summarise the project and intone the sacred names of the
items you'll require. In some less traditional establishments this
is followed immediately by the 'Tallying up of the Tribute'...though
in more conservative places it would be thought to be most unseemly
to discuss cost at this stage of the proceedings.
There now follows the 'Time of Joviality', in which
those assembled are required to cast aspersions on both the project
itself and the skills of the novice. "It'll never fly!"
and "That's not how I'd do it" are some of the more ancient
chants you'll hear - but all spoken in good heart and with due regard
to the old ways.
Once the novice has been suitably chastised, the solemn ceremony
of the 'Passing of the Skills' may begin proper - in which the Master
Craftsmen speak in turn, offering up the benefit of their wisdom
and experience. The Grand Shopkeeper at this point will adopt a
beneficent air and commence with the ritual 'Nodding of the Bonce'.
Having nodded sufficiently it's not uncommon for him to retire briefly
to pop the kettle on or adjust his toupee.
The 'Passing the Skills' is conducted with reverence
- each speaker is required to give forth his "Penn'orth"
(literally "a penny's worth". In some parts of the world
they can only muster a "Tuppenceworth"...which although
not quite as correct and dignified is still a great deal better
than "My two cents") and the novice must show appreciation
by repeating everything that's said word for word with much 'Nodding
of the Head' - or, if necessary, 'Tugging of the Forelock'. Pens
or pencils may be drawn, the better to point at various articles
- if someone borrows your pen it is not considered polite to ask
for it back. You must keep and treasure any mystical symbols or
sigils drawn on the backs of fag packets, blank cheques or shopping
bags - and you must not show fear of mixed dimensions in inches
By now the Master Shopkeeper will have returned to
his altar and, at a suitable point divined only by his considerable
experience in such things, will commence the 'Uttering of the Anecdotes'.
This usually begins with him saying "Of course, back in my
day..." or "Now that reminds me of when...".
This can often form the longest part of the ceremony, and it's important
that not only does the novice listen with all due respect and deference
to his peers, but contributes with at least one anecdote of his
own. Failure to do so will lead to a swift demand for Tributes followed
by a frosty silence. He will forever after also be known only as
If, however, he can hold forth with a couple of decent anecdotes
(one of which must involve a personal injury - preferably
resulting in a visible scar) he will be duly ordained as "Squire".
If his anecdotes have proved suitably amusing he may even be accorded
the accolade of "Guv".
The "Ceremony of the Anecdotes" gives way
to the "Time of Ramblings". For the novice this can be
considered akin to the bit in a wedding where the bride and groom
bugger off to a back room to sign the Registry whilst the organist
has a bash at playing Vidor's Toccata without making any particularly
audible fluffs, and people look around to see who has the worst
hat/tie on. In other words it's a more informal part of the proceedings
in which the various parties may witter on at length about anything
unconnected with the project in hand.
It's at this point that the Grand Shopkeeper will begin the 'Tallying
up of the Tribute". The novice must now not speak until the
Grand Shopkeeper has finished the tally and spoken the ritual blessing
of "Plus V.A.T". Tributes are handed over and the novice
is presented with the Brown Paper Bag of Acceptance.
The ceremony is brought to a close by the attendees
forming a double line down which the novice must walk to the door
to the accompaniment of such hearty cries as '"See you when
it breaks", "Don't forget your Skyhooks" and "If
in doubt, give it a clout".
Buying galvanised widgets will never be quite so much