25 A Week In Sydney
26 Interview with the Widow - 1
27 Interview with the Widow - 2
28 Three Kings of Orient
29 1969 - Year of the Rooster
30 Summer in Europe
31 Bellybuttons & Maggots
32 Yes/No vs. Maybe
33 Blood, Beer and Warm Feet
34 Mine Universe
35 Hands off, Boots on
36 The Accidental Cure
37 It's the Only Thing
38 The Professor's Stable
39 Little House on the Highway
40 "9/11 is OK"
41 Suspected Child Abuse
42 Midlife Crisis
43 Where Am I Today - 1
44 Where Am I Today - 2
45 The Rosebud Period
46 Angular and Giddy
47 Sandin, N. A., Computer
48 Hot Trailers
Hardware stores have always fascinated me. I’ve spent hours in hardware stores examining the gadgets, gizmos, gimcracks and gewgaws, trying to determine their intended purpose, and imagining how I might use them. For a couple of years I worked with a guy who shared my predilection and we made “hardware-store-du-jour trips” on our lunch hours. I especially enjoyed this during the 20 years when I was maintaining a house and had real hardware needs. The “helpful hardware man” was my hero!
In 1978 we lived in Tarzana, CA in San Fernando Valley. It was a pleasant middle class neighborhood with shopping, freeway access, restaurants, schools, and a lower level of smog than the Los Angeles basin. However, I had to drive the freeway to work in the higher smog area, I had a typical set of job frustrations, I found myself in midlife (44), and we were suddenly faced with the aspect of busing.
I think the busing was what caused me the most anxiety. In fairness, I don’t know exactly what the schools had in mind for us personally, but I pictured my little ones on buses for 90 minutes morning and night, riding through the smog and freeways that I hated so much, to spend their days in neighborhoods and schools far from home and of unknown quality. At the same time, the elementary school was just a few blocks away. So I freaked!
I had a dream of a small town, a simpler life, a place more like the one in which I went through high school. I wanted to be my own boss, to profit (or lose) from my own efforts, to be a bigger frog by finding a smaller pond. I remembered and wanted to return to four seasons, a job and a home and a church and shopping and schools all within walking distance, and the mid-west frame of mind.
My uncle and aunt ran a variety store in Marion, WI for many years and I admired their lives. They had an elegant apartment above the store and a cottage by one of the many lakes in that area. They both worked hard, but they seemed to enjoy themselves, and they became a model for me.
John, a high school buddy, became a pharmacist and took over the drug store from his father in our home town of Perry, Michigan. I got in touch with him for advice on running a business in a small town. He happened to know a real estate guy who dealt with small businesses all over Michigan. We arranged a meeting in Calumet, MI in the Upper Peninsula (UP) to look at a hardware store that was on the market. JR (8+ yrs. old) and I made the trip.
|Calumet Hardware Co.||A typical hardware display|
The Calumet Hardware Co. store was on the main street with only street parking. It was in the ground floor of a three-story building. The upstairs had been rented out variously for doctors, dentists, and other such offices. Those floors were currently vacant. Access was by an impressive wide solid wood stairway, but the top floors had seen better days. They had tall ceilings that had leaked over time. The wooden floors had warped and been torn up in places to get at the electrical wiring, and there was much work to be done. The store itself was similarly rundown, but the business, its inventory, and the building were very low-priced.
If I cranked up my imagination, I could see remodeling the upstairs into living quarters, and making this historic old town into an idyllic home! JR didn’t share my enthusiasm. We returned to CA to think some more.
Next I contacted representatives of Coast to Coast Hardware (no longer in existence – I think it merged with or was purchased by Ace Hardware). I arranged a trip to meet a real estate guy who showed me around several stores being offered at the time in Wisconsin. We hit Blair, Watertown, Fort Atkinson, Mapleton and Walworth. Some of these stores were in small agricultural communities and some in lower WI were in resort communities just north of Chicago. All of them were dynamic and therefore higher priced
In each town, I would look at the housing market, the schools, industry, shopping, and anything else that might catch my eye. The rural stores catered to the farms. The owners were like doctors – on-call 24/7. If a farmer lost his water pump, he needed parts or replacement NOW. The stores that catered to resorts had two “seasons” – Christmas for locals and spring when the resort owners started getting ready. I was particularly taken with the rural store in Blair. It was just the right size in a town that was just the right size on a river that was just the right size. I found an available house just a block and a half from the store and three blocks from the school.
|One of the WI stores||Another of the WI stores|
It all sounded very exciting and would certainly get us out of the big city. So I laid out a big spreadsheet and plugged in the data. As near as I could figure, the bottom line was like this. If I would work about 60 hrs/wk, Clae would work 40 hrs/wk, the kids would help out weekends and summers, and store sales and taxes would remain about the same, we might possibly match the income I was making at the time in CA. Of course there would be no paid holidays or vacations, no health insurance, and nowhere to hide from that white stuff that visits the Midwest “most” of the time between September and April.
The lure of independence and a simpler life just couldn’t compete with what we had in CA.
So I took a Tagamet, got in my car, found the freeway on-ramp, and drove through the smog some more while the dreams faded away. We put the kids in private school. Clae (bless her heart) found work and ended up paying for the kids’ education all the way through college. Eventually the company I worked for moved to San Fernando Valley so my drive was shorter and all on surface streets and didn’t involve the LA basin. And my midlife crisis melted like the snow in the Midwest melts just before the 4th of July!
But even today a shelf full of nuts, bolts and screws or a neat display of pliers or electrical connectors, or just a simple roll of duct tape can set me on a rerun of when I almost became the “helpful hardware man”!