Eileen Carr did not need epoxy putty or a dimmer switch or a flathead screwdriver when she walked into Dorchester’s Hamilton Hardware Tuesday afternoon, much as she had hundreds of times before. She was playing the numbers and saying hello, two things she can’t do at Home Depot.
Carr is a no-nonsense grandmother of 17, but she had to work to keep herself composed, avoiding looking back at the barren shelves. Hamilton Hardware is expected to close at the end of Wednesday, after 92 years in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood, providing not just hardware and home-improvement advice but also a place for conversation.
“You’d come in here and you felt like — well, you know, it was like home,” said Carr, in the brogue of her native Connemara, the region of Ireland she left in 1950. “There’s nothing else [like it] now.”
Mark and Paul O’Brien, brothers who grew up in Bowdoin-Geneva and who own the store together, held on as long as they could. Mark started at age 9 filling nail bins for 50 cents a day after school at St. Peter, the Catholic parish down the street. He worked weekends for date money in high school and on the side as a young carpenter before the opportunity to buy the business arose when he was 22. He brought his brother in soon after, in 1979.
Six days a week since then — and seven for many years — one or both of the O’Briens has been present at almost all times, meaning anyone could walk in and go right to the owner to solve a home-improvement problem or special order a hard-to-find part.
“We only work half days,” Mark O’Brien said, pausing for the punch line. “Twelve hours.”
Mark has relished it, both brothers have, and they expected to do it until they were hunched over. But he is just 56, he is not ready to retire, and he does not know what he will do next, beyond cleaning out their building to lease it to a new tenant, Dollar Tree.
“It’s a loss for the community,” said Jean Claude Remy, who first came in after he bought a house down the street 14 years ago. He was impressed by the selection they managed to cram into a 7,000-square-foot store.
“They’re always trying to help you. But what can you do now?” said Remy, a 56-year-old auto technician, looking over the last of the light fixtures. “It’s a shame.”
The O’Briens are the third owners of a hardware business that survived the Great Depression and hung on through dramatic demographic shifts. They thrived into the 1990s, remaining the anchor of the shopping district at Bowdoin and Hamilton streets, taking pride in hiring from the neighborhood. They expanded the building, added a parking lot, fed their own families and many others.
Then the giant chains eroded their sales. “People think they can get things cheaper at Home Depot,” said Ann Marie O’Brien. She was dating Mark when he bought the place and came to work beside him about 1990, leaving a career as a medical technologist.
In recent years, Ann Marie said, many people came in to talk through projects they initially tried to address at Home Depot — and discovered in the process that Hamilton’s prices compared favorably. Still, their sales have shifted from major items to smaller wares needed in an emergency.
“You can’t make it on a nut and a bolt and a key,” she said, sighing. “It’s a tough thing, ’cause it truly was, at one time, the American dream.”
Adding lottery tickets boosted foot traffic, and the house-flipping craze a decade ago gave them a jolt of customers, but the closing has seemed inexorable for years. They stayed open as long as they did mostly because they owned the building and could not bear to evict themselves, even as the number of employees not named O’Brien dwindled from 14 to two.
The store Tuesday was at once busy and bereft, people coming in to say goodbye and pick through the liquidation sale, while the O’Briens continued to grind out keys — only the multicolored ones remained — and employee Gustavo Guerra mixed paint that had been slashed first to $15, then $10 a can.
Paul O’Brien did not want to talk about it. Mark O’Brien discussed it reluctantly. It is the hardest thing he has done since he sold the nearby three-decker where five generations of his family had lived — from the great-grandfather who bought it to the first of O’Brien’s three daughters — before moving to the suburbs, after too many tenant headaches.
He is a squarely built man with a bristle-brush haircut, a tape measure on his belt, and a chain full of keys, and Eileen Carr thought nothing of going behind the counter to wrap him in an embrace. “He was my friend. I have to get a hug,” she explained.
“I love you,” she told him.
“I love you, too,” Mark said. “Thank you.”
She left, and Charlotte Golar Richie came in. The O’Briens knew her by name, not because of her years in government or her campaign for mayor but because she has owned a home in the neighborhood for 26 years — because of all the times she has come in to match paint or patch screens.
“We do not want you to go,” she told Mark. “But you have put in some good time here. I mean, you all have been just amazing members of our community.”
“Been a long time,” he said. “But you just can’t sustain it any longer. I wish it was under different circumstances. But what are you gonna do?”
They both nodded. And then Mark O’Brien asked her a question that they do not ask at the big-box stores — not how are you, but how have you been?