The door opens with a "bang," the entry bell jingling pleasantly. Like many other doors on Main Street, this one is thickly painted, with leaded glass inset into its wooden frame. The door hardware is new, however, gleaming brightly both in the sun and in the dimmer light within the store.
"Martin?" I called out, "Sydelle? Where are you guys?"
M&S Hardware is a crowded, cramped place, with narrow rows of merchandise and many places where a proprietor could hide. I hear the distinctive sound of tearing cardboard in the aisle closest to the back of the store, so I head that way.
Martin Byrd, the co-owner and co-proprietor of M&S Hardware is busily opening cartons containing smaller packages of screws and fasteners. At first glance, with his bib overalls, work boots and ever-present driving cap, Martin is an unassuming fellow. Spend five minutes with him and that notion would change. Let me tell you, he was a character you would not soon forget.
No taller than five and a half feet, Martin is ropy and leathery, like you would imagine a cowboy would be, or a sailor on a pirate ship. Martin is as bald as an egg, hence, the permanent hat. He has unnaturally bushy eyebrows that have a tendency to be distracting both to him and to his visitors. Martin's voice is completely at odds with his physical appearance. Instead of a nasally Ross Perot voice, he has a soft, deep voice that twanged just slightly from his Virginian roots. Almost a James Earl Jones voice. A bit disconcerting to hear Darth Vader's voice coming out of Yoda's body.
Martin has been running this hardware store since before I was born, serving multiple generations of our town. On a slow day, Martin would, if prompted, talk about his previous life as an engineer working on the first rockets. Proudly, Martin would describe each rocket failure as a new challenge to the way engineers thought things should be. "Get messy, make mistakes," Martin would say, "Works for rockets, works for wallpaper, too."
I had spent many a lazy Saturday afternoon in this hardware store. Learning how to fix toilets, re-shingle roofs, re-grout bathroom tile, and replace light switches. All from Martin's seemingly endless store of knowledge about home, auto and, well… everything-repair. If he couldn't tell you how to fix it, he could tell you how to improvise – a talent he learned on the rocket ranges in Florida and the Eastern Shore. "Give me duct tape, a screwdriver and some wire, and I can fix anything," Martin boasted.
Not that Martin is a preachy know-it-all. Actually, quite the opposite. Getting Martin to talk at length is quite a feat. He was typically spare with his words, and, as you would expect, his humor was dry as the desert.
His wife, Sydelle, was another character all her own. She quipped that Martin was actually the talkative one in their relationship, that he never shut up after closing the store. He kept her up all night talking.
Martin would grin at this, and so would all of the visitors and customers, because Sydelle barely took breaths between paragraphs. She was one long monologue on most days, sliding effortlessly from the weather, to local sports, to gossip out her store's front window.
Today, Sydelle is nowhere to be seen. Martin is restocking the shelves, and I have a faucet that has gone critical.
"Martin, thank goodness you're here! My kitchen faucet... I was tightening it and the handle just wrenched right off!" I breathlessly explain to the diminutive man, "There's water going everywhere! Jill's at the house holding a bucket over the water spout, so it's going into the sink, but the cut-off underneath doesn't seem to work. What do I need?"
Martin straightens up, a little stiffly. I have to remind myself that Martin is older than my own dad. He continues to be spry, but age has tightened his joints, slowed down his reflexes some; put a haze over his bright blue eyes.
"Well, first thing you need to do is learn where the main shut off valve is, I suppose," Martin begins, a touch of humor on his face.
"I went right for the cut-off valve under the sink and…" I begin.
Martin's face tells me I've missed the point. I wait a beat.
He continues, "I have no doubt that those cut-off valves are worthless. Made of nickel, I bet. Nice and shiny, but soft as butter inside. You need to find your main shut off valve for the house down in the basement. Then replace the pipe from under the sink up to the faucet." Martin steps around the boxes and pushes past me to the front of the store.
Over his shoulder he says "Let's call your wife and tell her where to find the valve. I'm sure she's getting tired of holding that bucket by now."
That is typical Martin. In his way, he takes complete responsibility for making each customer happy. The thousand or so square feet of his store feels twice as big when Martin is flitting about looking for this or that gewgaw.
Or twice as small, when it is just us, at the front of the store, and Martin is describing those heady days in the late 50's when we were going to beat those Commies into space.
I first noticed the "Going Out Of Business" sign on the front of M&S Hardware last week as I drove down Main Street to the grocery store. If I hadn't been in such a hurry, I would have stopped. It actually didn't sink in that the sign was on the front of the store until I was long past it. The realization made me nauseated.
First thing on Saturday morning, I park my car out front of M&S Hardware, and push through the heavy door, with its thick glass. No jangle today. No little bell.
I let the door shut behind me, and stare in disbelief. Not only are most of the aisles completely empty of the various this, that's and the other's comprising the merchandise, but the place even smells empty.
The wonderful mixture of smells, of light oil, metal, rubber and wood, has been replaced by a musty odor, one that I can't quite identify.
Sydelle is up front, behind the register, her hair up under a kerchief. She's got a stack of papers in front of her, and her little old lady reading glasses perched precariously on the end of her nose.
I walk up to her and wait, and she finally looks up at me, a weak smile on her face. There are deep bags under her eyes and she looks beyond exhausted.
"Hey Sydelle," I begin, not sure where to start, "I just saw the sign out front. What's the deal? You guys retiring?"
"Yeah, it's been a long time coming," Sydelle says, "With business so far off here the last year or so, we figured we ought to cut our losses and get down to Arizona before our nest egg gets swallowed up." Sydelle says this in a slow, matter of fact way.
"You're moving away? Why? You guys have been here for… forever!"
Sydelle is uncharacteristically quiet. I notice she's not meeting my eyes either. "Sydelle, what's going on?"
She finally looks at me, her eyes sad. "Martin doesn't want to live here anymore. He says the town has no soul and he can't live here." She shrugs.
If I could be bowled over by a comment, this is what it would feel like. I look around the store. Martin isn't anywhere to be seen. I turn back to the now-taciturn Sydelle.
"Sydelle, this is all a big surprise to me. When did you guys decide to go south? Why is Martin unhappy here? I thought you guys loved it here…" My voice trails off.
She looks at me for a moment, her eyes probing mine. "That 'Going Out of Business' sign has been on the door for about two months now," she says softly, "I guess you haven't noticed because you haven't been by in … how long has it been?"
I think hard about when I was in the store last. "It can't have been last Christmas," I say tentatively, "I remember coming in here to buy some of those replacement bulbs…" My voice trails off again.
It's now August. I haven't been into M&S since last December.
It all sinks in. I've done plenty of projects over the last eight months or so. But, instead of coming here to Main Street and picking through Martin's fabulous shelves, I've been rushing into the SuperStore, combining my hardware purchases with groceries, household items and what not.
I look at Sydelle, and she looks right back. I can see in her eyes that she knows I understand now. Understand why Martin could never live in a town that would reject him and his little store so soundly and suddenly.
"Sydelle," I begin, my voice with an embarrassing quaver, "I didn't know. I had no idea…"
She interrupts me with a quick wave of her hand. "Hon, I know, I know. No one ever really thinks about what the SuperStores do to the Mom and Pop places. First, it's the $1 savings on big laundry soap boxes, and then it's combining your shopping and dry-cleaning so you won't have to make an extra stop. Next, it's just easier to buy light bulbs and extension cords since you're there already…" her voice trails off. She shakes her head slightly and looks at me, tears wet at the corners of her eyes.
I have nothing to say to Sydelle. Nothing.
It didn't even sink in till then that I hadn't visited or stopped in for a quick hello in so long. A lump in my throat, I ask the obvious question, "Where's Martin?"
Sydelle smiles sadly again and shakes her head, "Martin's moved down to Arizona already. Fixing up the new apartment. He couldn't face seeing the store close on the last day. It would kill him. I've had our kids in here all week packing up the last of the merchandise. The bank is going to hold it until we find a buyer."
"You mean there's no buyer lined up for this store?" I ask, incredulous.
Sydelle waves vaguely out the front door. "Every other store here is closed, haven't you noticed? Felson's Floral Shop shut down in March, after a terrible Valentine's Day. The Corner Grocer, well, he's been gone since January."
As she speaks, I see the terrible truth across the street. For Sale signs, For Lease and Closed are on nearly every store front. I turn back to Sydelle, a heavy weight in my stomach.
"Sydelle, I'm so sorry. I just had no idea..."
Sydelle interrupts me again, this time by placing a cardboard box on the counter between us. "Martin was hoping that he'd see you before he moved south, but he left this here in case me or one of the kids saw you. Go on, this is sort of gift, I guess."
She looks at me, and continues. "He really enjoyed speaking with you, you know. Like your dad, he looked forward to chatting with you, hearing about your life, your family. He took a little pride in how self-sufficient you've become with home stuff."
The guilt is burning my chest and stomach so badly that I can hardly say "Thanks, and good luck to you guys."
Sydelle comes around the counter, gives me a quick hug, and returns to her paperwork, leaving me standing essentially alone in the empty store holding a cardboard box.
The front door doesn't feel heavy any more, not reassuring, or antique. It feels feather light, insubstantial and unreal. I almost don't notice it closing behind me. The nearly empty Main Street echoes with the almost silence.
Opening the smallish cardboard box, I see a slip of paper, and a plastic envelope full of silvery objects on top of brown paper wrapping, crumpled around the bottom.
The note reads: "I know how much you loved those nickel faucets in your kitchen. I know you haven't thrown them away, and they're living in your garage somewhere. I found a supplier of new nickel seats for those old faucets. They've been out of production for a long time, but I knew if I looked hard enough, I could find them for you. Hope that putting those shiny old faucets back in your kitchen makes you and your little lady happy.
New things have their charms, but people who can appreciate the fine old things sometimes have the better deal.
Best of luck to you, and see you around!
The tears are leaking down my face as I heft the bag of nickel faucet seats. I see another thing at the bottom of the box, stuffed into the paper wrapping.
The copper bell that's adorned the door of M&S Hardware lies in the box, a wad of tissue paper stuffed inside to prevent it from making a racket.
I turn back to the door, but Sydelle has been standing there, behind the leaded glass the whole time. Tears are running down her face too. She turns from me, holding herself in a hug.
I hear the "snick" of the door locking, and as Sydelle turns into the darkness of the empty store, she flips the sign around in the glass to say "Closed. Come Again."