A lady comes into the Ace Hardware Store on North Avenue in Burlington, tracks down a can of bug spray, and approaches Steve Audette, one of the more knowledgeable and experienced employees there. “Is this good for ants?” she asks him. “No,” Audette says, shaking his head thoughtfully, “It will kill ‘em.”
This is one of the two reasons why I love hardware stores: Most of the people who work there have a pretty good sense of humor. It seems to come with the job description. The other reason? You just never know what you’ll find in a hardware store. “We sell everything,” says Martin Clark, owner of the Martin’s hardware stores in Bristol and Middlebury. “Our Radio Shack section is always a surprise to people coming in here for the first time,” he says. “But we sell greetings cards, skeet shooter toy games, pet toys, pig ears.”
I’ve been to the local hardware store a lot lately, though not for the pig ears. I’m a vegetarian. Besides, Clark insists that the pig ears are for dogs. In any case, the leaves have now fallen, which means it’s time to winterize my house — a giant, upside-down colander when it comes to heat.
It was built in 1898, when Vermonters must have been a lot heartier than we are now. To wit: Before my wife and I put heat on the second floor just before our daughter was born, the bedroom windows would ice over on the inside some winter months. It was like living inside a snow globe.
According to the hardware store managers and employees I spoke with, some people are pretty determined when it comes to keeping their house toasty in the winter. Bill Darby, manager of the Aubuchon Hardware Store in South Burlington told me, “One time, a customer wanted foam board to put over the glass windows of his house. They didn’t need light, but they needed warmth. He said the lights were on inside in the winter anyway.”
There’s also a shopping pattern when it comes to winterizing, a level of escalation that is not unlike the way some consumers tackle a mouse problem. (Just for the record, one way not to tackle a mouse problem is by renting one of my cats. I have five, and my sense is that a mouse would have to come between them and their spots before the woodstove before they would bother to catch it.) Nick Spina, who works at the Bibens Ace Hardware in Essex, explains it this way: “People come in for mousetraps. Their first trip, they buy a no-kill or Havahart trap. Then a few days later they’re back for the ones that will terminate the mice.” Often the process is similar when it’s time to hunker down against the cold: It takes a couple of trips to the hardware store to get everything you need.
Jan Hemsted, who works with Spina, has also had to counsel costumers who thought they might solve their heat loss problems with a little spray foam insulation: “People will squirt it next to a door, and the next thing you know they have sealed the door shut when it swells up.” And so they come back for advice.
It will certainly take me a few visits before I’m done winterizing. Clark insists that “most window insulation kits are foolproof now,” but he’s never seen me work. Once, a few years ago, I thought I’d done a pretty good job with the plastic on a glass porch window, only to have one of my cats claw through it in search of a cluster fly the moment I’d finished.
So, I imagine I’ll see a lot of the hardware store in the coming days. And I fully expect I’ll do some holiday shopping there, because you really never know what you’ll find. I just know I won’t be buying pig ears.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on November 14, 2010,)