“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” Brecht was right about that. Time insists on change. That’s not a bad thing — but it’s not always welcome.
In 1893, the International Order of Odd Fellows established Lodge 576, apparently named for General William Tecumseh Sherman — the Union general who famously (or infamously) inflicted total war on the Confederate states during the U.S. Civil War thirty years earlier. The Odd Fellows held their meetings upstairs and leased the ground floor to Corning’s Cash Store.
At some point in the 1940s, the grocery store was sold and Fairground Hardware opened. Mike (I don’t know his last name) bought the place about twenty years ago. In a couple of days, everything in the store will be auctioned off, and Fairground Hardware will become…something else. Possibly a bistro.
The fact that Fairground Hardware lasted as long as it did is something of a miracle. Small, local hardware stores have been failing for more than a decade, driven out of business by big box ‘home improvement’ enterprises and giant retail chains. Online shopping drove the last nail in the hardware coffin.
Fairground Hardware’s survival was due in part to its location; as the name suggests, it’s located directly across from the Iowa State Fairgrounds. During the ten days of the state fair, the hardware store saw a lot of customers — drawn in more by the store’s appearance and its peculiar inventory. A lot of people enter the store just to look around.
That was certainly what first attracted me to the store. I occasionally eat at a working class diner on the corner opposite Fairground Hardware, and I always found myself intrigued by the store. Not so much the structure itself, but by the fact that it was called a hardware store, and yet the shop windows contained an assortment of cowboy hats, old radios, oddly shaped tin canisters, and ancient advertisements for products I’d never heard of before.
The interior of the shop makes the shop windows seem almost normal. Yes, there are some of the things you’d expect to find in a hardware store — wood screws, paint brushes, wrench sets, replacement parts for water heaters and toilets, mallets, cold chisels, shovels, crank-neck gouges, screwdrivers. But scattered throughout the store are things you do not expect to find in a hardware store — things that have nothing to do with hardware at all. Things that have nothing to do with normal reality.
Stepping into Fairground Hardware is like stepping into a set for a David Lynch film. The mix of normal and not-normal is wonderfully disorienting. Above a display of sockets for wrenches, you’ll find brightly colored fishing lures hung on a line like holiday ornaments. A plastic lobster is affixed to a ceiling water pipe, under which is a selection of coils of industrial wire. An old leather horse collar hangs from a peg-board along with some gardening tools.
Everywhere you turn you find yourself saying, “Wait…what? Why are there taxidermied Canada Geese next to the Allen wrenches, which are beside the cans of spray paint? Who puts PVC pipe and vintage Melmac dishes together, along with toy trains and light bulbs? Putty knives and puppets and metal screws? What? Halloween decorations? And…wait, canned goods? Those can’t be actual canned goods. Can they? Can they?”
Maybe the shelving made sense at one point in time. But it seems clear that in recent years none of this stuff was placed where it is as part of a merchandising strategy. It’s equally clear it hasn’t been placed simply to astonish the customers. I can’t say how Mike decided to put anything where he did, but walking through the store it feels more like he simply had a thing in his hand and saw a place without a thing, and so put the thing in his hand right there. And that’s where it stayed.
Mike himself, the owner, you couldn’t call him a ‘character’. Not really. I’ve probably gone into Fairground Hardware once or twice a year for the past few years. He can probably tell I’m just there to look, not to shop — and for the most part, he’s remained quiet and reserved. But when he decides to talk, he talks. You can’t get him to stop. And he’ll talk about almost any subject. The Old West, his childhood traumas, Donald Trump (he’s a fan), clowns, the inevitability of change. You can try to ease your way out of the conversation, you can say, “Well, I should probably be goin…”, and he’ll start on another tangent — his issues with his foot, why he prefers baseball caps to other hats, the history of camouflage.
You get the sense that he spends a lot of time alone in that shop — and that he’s been okay with that. He’s not reconciled to the fact that Fairground Hardware is going to close. He’s obviously a tad skeptical of the plan to turn the building into a bistro — you can tell simply by the way he says bistro, as though the term itself smells like bad cheese.
Time insists on change. Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are. Because things are the way they are, the authentic weirdness of Fairground Hardware will likely give way to a trendy bistro. In a working class neighborhood. That’s not a bad thing — but it’s not always welcome. And it’ll be a sad day when Mike has to turn off the ‘Open’ sign for the last time.
Nice story, Greg. It’s also sad, but mostly for Mike. The store, by the way, both in the way that you describe it, as well as on the photos you took, reminds me of Smith Brothers General Store in Clinton, IA. If you ever venture that way, check it out.
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It is sad — sad in a lot of ways. The move away from small, idiosyncratic shops toward uniformly dull corporate big box mega-stores makes the world more bland, less interesting, and significantly uglier. Even mom-and-pop shops in small, rural areas are at risk because of the Wal-Martization of the U.S.
If I had the money, I’d do a photo project of Midwestern small town general stores before they disappear. That would be a worthwhile project. And fun.
I think it comes with the car culture and the fact that nobody in the US ever wants to walk (except for you, I know). Everybody drives, so the big parking lot and mall concept is the way to go. What used to be downtown systematically gets dismantled because nobody goes there anymore. That’s very different here in the Netherlands, where government has firm regulations in place that restrict retail space outside of city limits and also has a cap on squaremeters per store, so you hardly find any huge stores or malls. And in the city, parking is expensive, so many people use public transport or go by bike when they go shopping. Of course, we also have hardware stores in the suburbs, but we also still have some in the cities, and I am really happy for that, because I don’t have a car and don’t want to ride 10k every time I need a screwdriver or extension cord.
As for the photo project, that sounds lovely. I did a half-attempt at documenting some of the Clinton decline in 2014, but of course, I don’t spend enough time there to do it properly. I bet you could.
Gabi, certainly an element of it has to do with car culture, but I think it has more to do with convenience. It’s just more convenient to go to a single big box store to buy all your groceries, your hardware needs, your clothes, your baked goods, your coffee, your gardening gear, your holiday gifts, your recreational gear than to make several trips to several shops for each of several things.
I’d much rather go to several different shops — but then I don’t have a straight job with regular hours. Convenience is rarely an issue with me.
the first thing I liked about Paris, and I am told still happens here and Italy, is the small store that is quirky and “how does it stay in business” is an early question.
I have come to learn that here they are protected, in some ways, which is good in the case of prevalent gentrification. I guess this store could have lasted a little longer here. (bookstores have been protected against the online attack, though I read that in the USA they are coming back.)
in the end, it is a tough call. emotions in favor of the quirkiness, despite the business case…
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As I understand it, the French go to ridiculous lengths to preserve and maintain French Culture — and particularly the language. I’m generally a big fan of the ridiculous, so I tend to approve of that. The US, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any distinct culture (although there are a LOT of regional and niche cultures), and culture takes a back seat to commerce in most places.
That said, more and more small and medium-sized towns in the US are resisting Wal-Martization and McDonaldsification. They’re enacting zoning laws that prevent big box and fast food franchises from smothering small, locally-operated shops and diners.
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I knew that hardware store looked familiar! I didn’t realize you were from Iowa too. I grew up mostly in Knoxville, graduated in Des Moines. I just moved out of DSM two years ago. I miss it though. My grandpa lived close by to that hardware store. He lived directly across from the fairgrounds. He was murdered a few years back though. I’m just spewing shit here. Hah. I just never realized you where from Iowa too!
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Casey, I was born in DSM, but moved around a lot. I’ve lived in Mississippi, in New Hampshire, in Maine, in Pennsylvania, in Washington DC, in Manhattan, in Virginia, in Ohio. I used to return to Iowa to visit family, but always left again as soon as possible — until about eight years ago. I came back for a visit, discovered the DSM had become something like a real city. Well, a smaller and more compact version, but still — there was art and culture and restaurants and the best farmer’s market I’ve ever seen. And Iowans have always been relatively nice.
Anyway, I decided to stay a while. I rather like it here now.
Sorry about your grandfather.
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I was born in Des Moines but grew up all around Iowa. I live in shithole Chariton now. It’s a horrible town. Iowa is nice but I’d love to move. I told my boyfriend if we are going to stay in Iowa, we are moving to either Knoxville (where I MOSTLY grew up, a bit in Chariton too) or Des Moines. The bigger towns in Iowa are great, the smaller towns not so much. There aren’t jobs, at least decent paying jobs. Hy-Vee literally owns Chariton.
Des Moines has flourished quite a bit. I ended up graduating from North. I think that’s why I’ve always loved Des Moines. I grew up in small towns but dreamed of bigger cities. I just don’t think I’d ever be able to live in Chicago or NYC or something bigger.
My favorite is the farmer’s market & the Art Festival every summer.
It’s okay about my grandpa. Sadly, I hadn’t seen him since I was young. He was the father of my “sperm donor” as I call him but my grandpa was always into drugs. My grandmother, who divorced him, never took me over there so I never saw him much. He & his gf were in a volatile relationship. They’d physically beat each other. It wasn’t one sided like the press liked to say, though. Long story short, his gf shot him in his sleep, called the police, & sat on the porch & waited for them. It was a terrible ordeal. I know he didn’t have the best reputation, but he was always good to me. My aunt was a mess setting up the funeral, my “sperm donor” didn’t come down from Utah. It just wasn’t fun. Strangely, because of his lifestyle, it wasn’t a big surprise that he went the way he did. He was a tough man though. I loved him. I wish I had seen him more. Regrets, ya know.
But that’s crazy. This is where “It’s A Small World” starts playing. I’ve been following your blog pretty much since I started mine in August because I love your analysis’ of Trump but had no idea you were from Iowa. It’s nice because most of small town Iowa is Republican, most of my family in DSM are Republican, so we usually don’t agree on politics. I’m independent but lean to the left. I think the Republican party is so twisted & corrupt.
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Love this entire trip…Iowa…hell yes
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