A Hardware Story
The Orlowski True Value Hardware Company, where I’ve worked since the 9th grade, has stood on Love Lane, Mattituck’s main street, for nearly a century. Every day, most residents of Mattituck stop by Love Lane for one reason or another, and many of them visit the hardware store. In the fall, our annual arsenal of rakes is ready for a demanding populace hankering to clear their lawns. Through the winter months, we equip nearly every Mattitucker with a snow shovel and bag of ice melt (and sometimes a plastic toboggan or two). When spring rolls around, we make sure everyone has the sprinklers, trowels, and potting soil they need to resuscitate their gardens.
In the summertime, it’s not uncommon for groups of tourists to wander into the hardware store to appreciate the quaint, old-time charm of Orlowski’s. Some of the younger tourists have never seen a hardware store, growing up in towns where hardware stores have all been wiped out by home improvement box stores. Some visitors just walk down the aisles and marvel at the Mason jars, sealing wax, and Barkeeper’s Friend brand counter cleaner. Others walk a few steps into the store, take a deep breath, and explain how pleasantly the smell of an old-timey hardware store reminds them of their childhood out in the country. People like that never fail to make me realize how grateful I am to live in a place like Mattituck. I have permanent access to a beautiful, rustic environment that the tourists get to enjoy only on weekends in the summer.
Aside from these folks who just pass through, Orlowski’s has regular customers. For the most part, these faces that have grown familiar to me belong to local contractors: painters, electricians, builders, and plumbers who come in for supplies on their way to the job. My coworkers and I mix their paint and help them jury-rig kitchen faucet connectors. Working at the hardware store, I’ve come to know the working men that keep Mattituck running. When the town’s grocery-store-and-movie-theater shopping center received a face lift, the painting contractor, Pete bought the sixty-four gallons of Yosemite Sand paint from us. There are times when the daily grind gives way to moments of timelessness. When an elderly farmer walks in wearing overalls, clutching a sack of beets, and says, “Give that to Mr. Orlowski and tell him it’s to pay for last month’s bill,” you can be forgiven for mistaking this exchange for a moment from an earlier, simpler, time. Indeed, working at the Orlowski hardware store conjures the feeling of apprenticing in a medieval blacksmith shop, supplying the village with essential goods, and especially ensuring that the workers who keep the gears in the town turning have all the necessary tools.
One of the men who kept Mattituck running smoothly for decades was a plumber who worked for Mattituck Plumbing and Heating. His name was Jim Barney, and he was my grandpa. When I was young, the pipe cement and plumber’s putty that was caked over his strong, capable hands were visible reminders his hard work. As a little kid, whenever I saw a bright orange Mattituck Plumbing van, I swelled with pride that my grandpa might have been driving that van to fix somebody’s house at that very moment. I could not have been prouder of him for being one of the people on whom the town relies most. My grandpa’s big orange van, like all of the other plumbers’ vans, ended up outside of Orlowski Hardware on a regular basis. When I was young and would spend the day with my grandparents, I had the privilege of visiting the hardware store with my grandpa. On those days, it was my opportunity to get a behind the scenes view into a plumber’s life. My grandfather knew exactly what he needed and where to find it in the store. The people behind the counter knew him. They had a brief, friendly exchange when my grandpa paid for his items, and then we were on our way. I was awestruck. The life of a plumber was so interesting and, to my young mind, heroic. I was honored to be at the store with my grandfather on official plumbing business, if only briefly.
Years later–the year after my grandfather passed away–I started working at Orlowski Hardware. I know that, like my grandpa, I am helping Mattituck. When folks come into the hardware store trying to repair a leaky water pipe, I help them find a ball valve and explain how it works. It’s gratifying that, because of my work, there’s a family somewhere in town whose water pipes won’t leak anymore. My only regret, as I stand behind the counter, is that I was never able to sell my grandfather hardware. Once in a while, his coworkers will come into the store to buy some plumbing fixtures and remind me what a great man my grandpa was, or one of his plumbing proteges might tell me that my grandpa taught him everything he knows about the trade. During moments like these, I feel a pang of sadness that my grandfather didn’t live to see me take up the torch and start helping Mattituck in my own way.