John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2006
WORCESTER — There’s a Home Depot about 2 miles away from Elwood Adams Hardware.
But why settle for a soulless airport hangar when you can step inside an old, comfortable slipper?
Elwood Adams, named for a former owner long dead, has been selling nails and other useful things for 235 years. The other day, Mark Lannon and Franny Neale were standing behind the counter, ringing up sales, staving off grief.
Elwood Adams, the oldest hardware store in the United States, is closing. Supposedly on Friday. Maybe next week. Who knows? There’s still a lot of stuff to sell. And the truth is, it is very hard for the people who worked and shopped at Elwood Adams to let go.
“It’s like hospice,” said Lannon, who has worked there for 35 years. “Watching someone you love die, slowly, but at peace.”
Franny Neale, the store manager with 41 years on the job, shook his head. As far as he’s concerned, the patient is already cold.
“This feels like a wake,” he said. “It’s like being at your own wake.”
The hardware store that is Elwood Adams was opened by Daniel Waldo in 1782, seven years before the United States elected its first president. It was the first brick building in Worcester, and it was well built. Worcester grew and prospered and so did the hardware store. Elwood Adams and his son ran the store from 1886 until 1947. Ten years after that, Nelson Cloutier and Maurice Champagne were working there when they heard the owner was itching to sell. They somehow scraped the money up and became their own bosses.
They were good bosses, as were the other Cloutiers who kept the business going into the 21st century.
At Elwood Adams, employees and customers remained constants, like the dirt on the basement floor and the 19th-century hauling wheel that lifted heavy equipment to the second floor.
Mark Lannon was going to college nights and needed a job. One night, one of his buddies confided that he had just been fired from Elwood Adams.
The next morning, as soon as Maurice Champagne and Nelson Cloutier opened their doors, 18-year-old Mark Lannon was standing at the counter, asking if they needed help, knowing the answer.
Lannon initially thought it was just a college job. But he got married, had a kid, and realized that his bosses were the nicest guys in the world. Why leave?
“They were World War II veterans,” he said, “and they really were the greatest generation.”
Lannon sold his soul to Elwood Adams, and, when he needed brain surgery, his bosses showed their souls by paying him when they didn’t have to. His job was waiting for him when he came back with a scar on the side of his head. Everybody in the store hugged him.
There was never a shortage of characters in Elwood Adams, some of whom lived at the nearby but since-closed Worcester State Hospital. There was a guy named Eddie who panhandled along Main Street and came into the store to convert his change to bills. Eddie always had kittens perched on his shoulders — a moving, meowing scarf.
Then there was Charlie. Charlie lived up the hill, in a home for developmentally disabled adults. Charlie walked the streets of Worcester every day and collected nuts and bolts, from the gutters, the sidewalks, construction sites, wherever. Charlie would come into the store, and whoever was behind the counter gave him a fair price for his nuts and bolts, and Charlie always left smiling.
Donald Beams Wallace was also a regular. He was hit by a train when he was a kid and struggled every day after. Some days he was lucid, but on others he would stand next to the dry wall screws and insist that Martians were abducting people from the streets of Worcester.
One day, Donald Beams Wallace came in and handed Mark Lannon a story he had written. It was three pages long and it was about his life, and his grandmother’s apple pie.
Mark Lannon held the paper in his hands and read it, and when he finished he looked up. He told Donald Beams Wallace it was one of the finest pieces of writing he had ever read.
“I mean it, Donald,” Lannon told him, because he did mean it. “This is really good. This is like, literature.”
The other day, Marge Webster came down from upstairs and handed Lannon some receipts. She’s been the office manager for 40 years. Marge has been sitting at her desk for the last few weeks, thinking.
She was a young mother with little kids at home when she started working at Elwood Adams. They gave her summers off.
“Can you believe that?” she said. “They wanted me to be home for my kids.”
When the Blizzard of ’78 hit, Nelson Cloutier called Marge and ordered her to stay home. Then he called Franny Neale and told him to come in and shovel the roof.
Nelson Cloutier has been dead for 20 years, and Marge and Franny and Mark still miss him every day, because there’s nothing better than a good boss.
On Wednesday, a stunningly sunny autumn day, the shadows were growing longer and Marge Webster was growing sentimental.
“My son works construction now,” she said. “He won’t be able to come here anymore.”
She looked to one of the walls, where wrenches hung, staring at a memory. She smiled. Then her eyes welled up.
“Nothing lasts forever,” she said, but she said it like she wished Elwood Adams would.
Marge Webster went back upstairs to finish the books.
Until the end, many local contractors, like 72-year-old Bill Morrill, insisted on buying their stuff at Elwood Adams. Morrill, who owns a sheet metal company, first walked into Elwood Adams when he was 12, at his father’s side.
“I won’t go to the big stores,” Morrill said. “The service here, the people here, the best.”
People who work in the colleges and schools that pepper Worcester went out of their way to throw Elwood Adams a lifeline. Elwood Adams was the biggest local supplier of white boards, for classrooms.
“We don’t even stock white boards,” said Lannon, who special orders them. “People just wanted to give us business. People tried. Believe me, they tried.”
They wanted Elwood Adams to stay open because they all had an Elwood Adams story, going there with their dad as a kid, buying thin nails to hang a picture in their first apartment, getting a bag of concrete that sat in the garage, unused, for a project never finished.
But the world spun and the world changed and too many people decided they’d rather go to Home Depot or Lowe’s, thinking there was always more in a new airplane hangar than an old comfy slipper. This year, the Cloutier family, fighting big box stores, the Internet, and modernity, decided to close and sell the building.
The city of Worcester is pulling out all the stops to lure Amazon here. But there are no tax breaks, no big wet kiss, for Elwood Adams. And so it will close.
It will live on in some ways. Jerry’s Hardware, still in Worcester but hard by the West Boylston line, just bought the old key machine. They will keep pressing keys that have “Elwood Adams” on them.
Mostly, Elwood Adams will live in the hard drive that is human memory.
Mark Lannon kept a copy of that story Donald Beams Wallace wrote and often thinks about him and Eddie and Charlie. And as proud as he is of working his entire adult life at a genuine, local institution, the nation’s oldest hardware store, Lannon is also proud that no one, no matter who they were, no matter what they did, was ever thrown out of the store in anger. At Elwood Adams, everybody was treated with respect, whether their pockets were lined with cash or just lint.
Twenty-six years ago, when Donald Beams Wallace was 29, he disappeared. He’s never been seen again. The cops don’t know what happened to him.
Mark Lannon was hoping against hope that Donald Beams Wallace would walk through the front door of Elwood Adams this week, before they close the place for good.
That would have been a sign. That it was time. That even the ghosts say it’s time to go.
At it is, it just feels sad, that times and shopping habits and economics have changed, and not for the better.
It will never be the same for anyone who walked its cramped aisles and knew Nelson Cloutier and Maurice Champagne and Franny Neale and Marge Webster and Mark Lannon and Carlos Colon, those who lived in a time and a place where everybody was welcome — the gainfully employed and the irretrievably lost — where everybody not only knew your name but was just so damn glad to see you.
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