There’s something about cubbies. There’s something about chests of small drawers. They’re a feature of old hardware stores, and they tease at ideas of treasure, secrets, unexpected finds. Shiny silver washers, like coins from foreign shores. Smooth white knobs for cabinet doors, like pearl earrings for a giantess. In Medfield, where I grew up, one of these old hardware stores lived right off Main Street. I remember the place specifically and fondly, and wonder if it’s still there; they’re going the way of the foldable road map, these sorts of stores.
As an adult, working as a journalist at the Boston Phoenix, I didn’t have much need for hardware stores. The occasional gallon of paint, or handful of nails to hang something on the wall, but for nearly a decade they weren’t part of my orbit. That changed. Closing in on 30, I quit that job, sick of sitting in front of a screen and craving more tangible work. With exactly zero experience, I answered a post on Craigslist and lucked into a longshot job as an assistant to a carpenter named Mary.
Six years ago, just weeks into this new work, Mary and I had a job turning a wall into a window. In need of sharp new blades for the Sawzall, we made a stop at a place called Masse Hardware. It stood in an off-the-beaten-path part of Cambridge, on a corner outside Porter Square, on the way to nowhere really. It wasn’t a big store, and it was established in 1888.
The floors creaked. There was dust on the windows. The smell was distinct and familiar and does not exist at high-ceilinged fluorescent-lighted warehouses: the sour tang of mulch heaped in plastic sacks, shreds of soft barky bits spilling on the floor; metal, like a little bit of blood in your mouth; rust and dust, the heated motor scent of vacuuming, the smell of paper long exposed to sunlight, brittle and crumbly; something rubbery like tires; the sweet and singed whisper of turpentine. These layers of scent brought to mind gardens and garages and work. They triggered sense memories of errands with my father to the dim, creaky-floored hardware store in my hometown.
A large metal multi-binned structure stood as the centerpiece in Masse’s, like a pine tree with feed scoops for branches. Nails and screws of different lengths and thicknesses filled each bin. Two-inch drywall screws, three bucks a pound. If you only needed six of them, that’s fine too. A few loose nails on the worn wooden floor around the bins didn’t look dangerous or haphazard, a natural outcome, a pine tree shedding needles. In one of the scoops on the top tier, which I could only reach on tip-toes, arms at full extension, was a basketball. I don’t think it was for sale.
“A hardware store is a kind of offbeat museum show for the man who responds to good, clear, ‘undesigned’ forms,” wrote photographer Walker Evans in an introduction to “Beauties of the Common Tool,” a series of portraits of hand tools that ran in Fortune magazine in 1955. Six years ago, barely able to drive a nail, trailing my boss around the store, I found myself responding to these forms. In a corner, a display of ax handles hung from the walls, smooth to touch. Even without the heads, the hafts looked useful and ruthless. One couldn’t help imagining hands taking hold of the tool, fingers gripped around the handle, the blade rising with the arms over the head, and hearing that dry crack of oak as it split. I’d thought these sorts of places had more or less vanished, swallowed up by big chain monsters. But here was magical Masse’s, and on that first trip there, when buying a box of galvanized nails, a package of sawblades, and a baggie full of washers was a new and unfamiliar part of my life, this place confirmed that something good had happened, that this path, though unexpected, might be right.
A faded sign above the counter at Masse’s announced the store’s motto: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” At first, it sounds like just a folksy dictum, a catch phrase of some romanticized long-gone ease and simplicity. But letting it sink in for a moment, what a comfort, what reassurance: If we don’t have it, you don’t need it. I don’t need it? Such a welcome alternative to the bombardment of messages about things we must buy. At Masse’s, the peeling paint and busted gutter and shattered Humpty-Dumpty pieces of our lives felt put-back-togetherable. The world felt more manageable at Masse’s.
Every Wednesday, the store closed at 1 in the afternoon. It went that way for over a hundred years. “It’s held over from the old days,” said Dave Masse, the owner, whose grandfather started the shop. The place began as a general store and sold clothes, meat, tools, toys. “There used to be a lot more cubbies and drawers,” Masse told me, “like a penny candy store.” Masse is a tall man with a kind face and looks strong for someone in his mid-70s. He wears round glasses and seems like the type of man who always tucks in his shortsleeved buttondowns. He has the patience that comes from being an advice-giver, a problem-solver, a consultant on paint color and chisel type and what fertilizer works best for peonies and how do I install this door hinge, and what sort of nails do I need for repairing my basement steps. He is recognized in the neighborhood.
Customers were a loyal bunch. “We’re primarily selling to customers we’ve been selling to for 40 or 50 years,” Masse said. It’s a blessing and a curse, this loyalty. “I have people who come in and say, ‘I love the store, don’t go out of business, this is the only place I can buy two or three nails.’ What they don’t understand is the reason I’d go out of business is because they’re only going to buy two or three nails, and then head to Home Depot to buy a power saw because it’s cheaper.”
Back at Masse’s months later, a slight and sinewy man, Mr. Sullo, 69, struck up a conversation. A flimsy prickle of a pencil mustache lined the rim of his upper lip, which was, he explained, his “nod to Bob” (as in Dylan). He’d been coming to Masse’s since the mid-’60s. “I’m not a religious man,” he said in the parking lot, traffic picking up as the afternoon faded toward rush hour. “I don’t believe in God, but I take comfort in goodness. Masse’s has a goodness about it. It’s not about messing with your head. It’s not about taking advantage of you.” He talked of photographing the Boston folk scene back in the ’60s, about coming out of the resistance movement. “Love, peace, all that stuff is coming back, and Masse’s fits into that groove.” It’s not a model, he said of the store, it’s a movement. It’s a movement, I was reluctant to tell him, that might have less steam in its engine than Sullo believes.
Dave Masse’s son worked full time at the store while he was finishing up his degree in business. He doesn’t want to go into hardware. “I haven’t the faintest idea of what sort of business he wants to do,” said Masse. “But he’s worked here long enough to know that this isn’t what he wants.” He was brought in young, the same way his father was. “I started when I was 14 and I loved it,” Mr. Masse said. “If you don’t have the love at this point I don’t push him.”
In the parking lot Sullo had told me that certain projects help you feel clean, and I know now what he meant. It’s the cleanse that comes with a connection to the stuff and the things closest to us, of having some understanding of how to take something apart and put it back together. What I’ve come to know, as my boss Mary and I have moved from job to job, is the way some semblance of control over the physical world around us grounds us, makes us more alert and more open to what’s in front of our faces every day. And in that lies the recognition of time and its impact; we see it in the chipping paint on the windowsill, the rust on the door hinge, the droop of an unwatered plant.
In the closing months of 2013, I made my way to Masse’s to pick up a pack of the felt pads that stick to the feet of furniture to keep wood floors safe from scratching. I’d just finished building a table, a massive thing, 4 feet by 6 feet, made of beautiful black walnut, and the pads were the finishing piece. I arrived at the store and saw the signs. “Going out of business sale,” they read. “Up to 80% off.” I’d come too late. I’d missed it by a week. Masse’s was locked and dark. Everything must go.
Now, even more than before, we try to favor the smaller hardware stores around town, places where the floors creak, where the aisles are narrow, where entering feels a little like walking into your local bar — where you feel welcome, recognized, connected. It means we spend a little more, and sometimes have to make two stops, but it helps keep these “offbeat museum shows” breathing. There’s no sign to remind us, but the Masse’s motto — “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” — lives on.
Nina MacLaughlin’s book, “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter,” will be published this month.