The hardware man's legacy


The front door opens and the bell rings, but stepping into my parents' hardware store is more akin to visiting a museum than a place of business.

The aging building in Hospers, Iowa, is the cradle of my civilized life. I spent my infancy in this store, napping in a large crib at the foot of the office stairs. As a child, I ogled the new games and Barbie dolls fresh from their packing on freight day.

It didn't matter that I lacked a swingset; I climbed stacks of stainless steel and plastic pipe, instead, in the warehouse at the back of the store. I had a rich childhood because of that store. My life was filled with images of watching my mother cut keys (I pretended the filings were gold dust.) and watching her weigh bean seed (I was sure they were magic.), yet I despised the family business.

The store was a harsh mistress. My parents worked from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. on weekdays and until 9 p.m. Saturday nights. On Sundays, their rest was invariably robbed by headaches, the press of business still pounding upon them. But my father loved his work or learned to; his work enveloped him.

The rest of us, my mother, my older brother, and I merely tolerated it, and we all wished for a different life. We wished for a cleaner, neater life, one with no service calls to interrupt family plans.
The hardware business might have been bearable had we lived in a bigger town, but Hospers is a small farming community. In addition to selling nuts and bolts, mixers and refrigerators, my father also installed pipeline milking systems and silo unloaders to farmers in a wide radius.

We needed farmers as much as they needed us. The only trouble was, they brought the farm with them in smelly clumps. They tracked in pig manure, and silage clung to the ripped elbows of their coveralls. No matter how much sweeping compound my mother used, the store floor would never shine.

There was no romance in stinking reality. We children watched our parents labor and without conferring, set off in other directions. My brother became a teacher, and in adolescence, I made two resolves: I would never marry a farmer, and I would never marry a man eager to take over my fathers business.

Did we just imagine their silent blessing as they sent us to college, as if to say, "Go find a better life." We realized our wishes, but like any escape from reality, the more you elude it, the more it pursues you. We have left the grime and inconvenience behind but not the view of life that underpinned it.

It's a way of life that's largely gone, that rattles like a wind-blown husk. I hear that rattle every time I visit home. But it isn't just Zwagerman Hardware that's dying. Something's gone, faded from the fabric of this nondescript town.

The town is no longer the center of life, of anyone's life. Now it is a place to pass through or a place to sleep in, or, as in my case, a place to have been from. And little else. Hospers has shifted from being the locus of people's lives to assuming a point on a widening periphery.

It's better off than most; it still has its own grocery store, a cafe, and a bank. My parents are still there, with shortened and more flexible hours. But no one pretends that things are all right. Everyone knows that the town has lost its sap.

The loss encompasses more than businesses drying up, catastrophic as that may be, but social congress ebbs as well. Informal, but binding, ties weaken. In addition to their money, people stop spending time on Main Street. Hollows form. Dust settles in and covers the tracks of a busy past.

In that past - which I was witness to - Main Street bustled with Saturday night fever. Farm wives escaped their rigors and socialized in the stores, and kids played games on the sidewalks. Men hitched a foot on a car bumper and talked turkey for hours. Teen-aged boys and old geezers shot pool in the hall across the street. Hours later, these same folks would gather again to say Mass or sit in Protestant pews.

Town and country made a happy marriage in these scenes from my childhood. That was all before life sped up, before interstate highways ushered families to Disneyland on vacation. That was all before the Pamida chain store came to Sheldon eight miles north and heralded the era of the blister pack.

The blister pack was the brainchild of marketing and the undoing of the mom and pop store. It used to be that if a customer wanted 13 rubber washers, she got thirteen. Now, washers and batteries and other sundries are sold in small, even-numbered lots, encased in plastic packages.

It still makes me mad, my father said recently. Why make people pay for something they don't need? Oh, Dad, I want to say, weren't you listening in those hardware seminars you and Mom attended? Of course they were, but they would sit at the back of the convention room, eating the cold, powdered eggs and say little. Occasionally my mother would whisper, "We could never do that."

Back home, they'd ignore all the professional advice from the big boys in Minneapolis. They knew they were being told that the Golden Rule was hopelessly naive, but my parents played dumb. For years, they were staunch holdouts against the blister pack mentality and would defiantly split them open as if liberating caged animals. They kept customers that way. The little things made a difference sometimes. If my father was willing to hunt for an odd part, a farmer would pay $40 more for a Maytag washer because he knew that the man who sold it would also service it.

That man - my father - wasn't going anywhere where he wouldn't be seen. Where his work wouldn't be known. Where his reputation wouldn't be scrutinized. To be found wanting would have been to go hungry.

A heaviness attends the writing of this memory. It's the old press of work remembered. My parents were wedged tightly into commerce. All we children saw were the uncompromising demands on their time. But it also held them fast in cohesion and purpose. But, gradually, the lure of Pamida was coupled with the gravitational pull of Wal-Mart, and even the staunchest loyalty knuckles under to convenience.

It's hard to put off the purchase of three batteries at Zwagerman's when you can buy four batteries, toilet paper, underwear, and fill a prescription in one trip to Sam Walton. I shop at Wal-Mart, too, and my parents don't lecture me. They know I have few options where I live. They've seen the future coming for a long time and accept it.

Now all I have are sanitary, impersonal places to shop. Its not that I wax nostalgic about pig poop and torn coveralls, but it was the stuff of real life. We were intimately connected with that which fed us. Now, we are disconnected from the source of our life and from each other. Everything is fragmented and askew in ways we feel more deeply than we can name.

Now, when my faucet leaks, I have to buy a whole assembly of parts, most of which I don't need. And I never did find the right door latch to replace my worn-out one, despite purchasing three different kinds. The helpful folks in the store would counsel me to get a new door, good salespeople that they are.

But I'm not that easily led; they don't know whose daughter I am. I may look like a good consumer, but instead of seeing amply stocked shelves and low prices, I see business practices that erode the social fabric of towns like Hospers. The dictum (which I heard ad infinitum growing up) that the customer is always right seems to have been replaced with the customer must be TOLD what is right. And told it often enough that we start believing it.

Not me, though. Not yet. What a joke on me. In my desire to disconnect from an all-encompassing business, I have followed a path of less resistance (to family and community obligation), and have found it a slippery slope indeed.

Sometimes I feel as though I've fallen off the edge and don't know where I've landed. I wanted out, yet I spend a lot of time looking back into that life. And for what? To recapture the birthright sold too cheaply? Or to repent for things that can't be changed?

For there's no going back, I know. I know it more surely every time I thumb through family photos and see people flush with pride and optimism. These were people who stayed put, who grew their own food, who gave their lives to fulfill the dreams of their ancestors. What a wonder they should stand so happy and so firm. It is a wonder to me still.

It seems I have missed a great truth, a truth that has blown away like so much topsoil. In the acceptance of duty, there was joy - even for my mother. Years later, she quietly admitted that the store had been good for her, too. "It got me out and interested in other things. I sure have learned a lot."

So, it seems, have I. I discover years later that the much-hated family business is alive and kicking - in me. I still don't want to take over from my father, but I wish that I'd paid more attention. I may have to shop at Wal-Mart, but I don't have to like it. I can still raise a mental fist at blister packs and bubble-headedness and say, "I knew a time when there was a better way."

It may be gone, but its truths have settled within me. I live them out in quiet dissension. I don't have to spurn all that once was, all I once knew. I am, after all, the hardware man's daughter.

Joan Zwagerman is a free-lance writer from Alta, Iowa.

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