Tiny Bag to Big Box

Friday, December 6, 2013, Vol. 128, No. 238


Saturday at 491 South Highland.

That meant, if you couldn’t get out the door and out of earshot fast enough, you’d be working for Dad. “I need a #2 this or that,” he’d say – staring at the repurposed wooden Philadelphia Cream Cheese box in his hand that no longer held cream cheese and, evidently, not a single #2 this or that either – “Run down to the hardware store.”

And off I’d go to Whitten Brothers just down the street. I’d ask the man for a #2 this or that, or maybe two or three, but it was very often just one, and he would disappear into caves of threaded, squared, rounded, sharp and pointy things, find the one needed, slip it into a tiny brown bag and send me home with a pat on the head. Two or three weeks later, there would be a handwritten note in the mailbox, “1 screw, 1¢,” and so on, and I would be dispatched to settle up.

Whitten Brothers long ago left Highland and affiliated with Ace Hardware to survive. The neighborhood hardware store has all but disappeared into the big box jaws of Home Depot and Lowe’s, the one-on-one attention and one-small-thing-at-a-time purchase as quaint as a one-screen movie theater and a one-scoop sundae at a soda fountain.

And Stewart Brothers on Madison is closing this month.

I’m pretty sure that if you wanted to fix anything – including the economy, health care and the Middle East – one of those guys in Stewart Brothers would take you to just what you needed, show you how to use it, and have it in three sizes.

All of this took me to Gates Hardware on Summer just east of Hollywood, open since 1929 and still there. “Yeah,” Sylvester said, “we still cut glass, cut and thread pipe for folks, make keys that work, lots of little things.” When I asked the owner if he still had tiny brown bags, “Sure,” he said, showing me one, and then pointing to a roll of plastic ones, “but those are a lot cheaper.” So there you have it.

This is not about nostalgia. This is about the nuts and bolts of reality. We wanted lots of cars and mobility and stuff, and we built big roads and big boxes and big houses to hold it all in big new places with room for all those cars. How we buy and how we live has much more to do with software than hardware, more about bytes in clouds than bits in drills.

To paraphrase Pogo, an ancient philosopher about as old as those guys in Stewart Brothers, if you’re wondering who to cuss for the loss of the one-at-a-time, one-cent screw, just cuss us.

As interest grows in returning to the core – in design overlays, schools, local pride and resource efficiency that can return neighborhoods to neighborhoods – neighborhood stores will be the brand-new thing.

All over again.

I’m a Memphian, and I still need help finding a #2 this or that.

Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at dan@wakesomebodyup.com.