Fifteen, twenty years ago The Home Depot was the greatest thing on Earth. It was a new thing to all of us. We went there and walked those wide aisles practically numb.
Before The Home Depot, a person (usually a man) would go to what was called a "lumberyard" in conjunction with a "hardware store" in order to fill the home remodeling list. Employees of these lumberyards and hardware stores could often be grouchy, unhelpful, and clubby, hardly a welcoming environment for anyone who wasn't part of the club.
Open The (Big) Box
Then the door was flung open to the Big Box chains, and here comes The Home Depot. Those wide aisles. Big stuff like lumber and deck boards living in harmony with little, hardware store things like nuts and bolts. No need to go to two places at once! And if The Home Depot associates didn't know their you-know-what from their elbow, at least they were friendly in their lack of knowledge. A new world of home renovation was ushered in.
The Boxes Become Out Of Touch
Then the slow downfall of The Home Depot. Lowe's swept in with cleaner aisles, better lighting, more appliances, and in general a better atmosphere. Call Home Depot's time the Reign of Nardelli--the famously disliked Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli--when, according to an article in Barron's:
There were snowblowers on display at Florida outlets, beach chairs on offer in landlocked Kansas, and dozens of organic fertilizers available in stores that needed just a few.
Mom and Pop Stores
But in the last few years, I've rediscovered the joys of the simple hardware store--i.e., Ace Hardware. These independently owned stores are fiercely local. They are the antithesis of Home Depot at a time when everything that Home Depot stands for signifies evil.
Every Ace Hardware I have visited has local touches--Lion's and Boy Scouts and Little Leaguers drumming up support; souvenir doo-dads for Abilene, Santa Fe, Albany, Fargo, Weed, or any number of other Ace locations across the country (tourists could almost bypass souvenir shops and pick up local stuff from the Ace).
Case in point: this photo from Flickr user Gerry Dincher shows " an Ace Hardware in Siler City, Chatham County, North Carolina near the intersection of Raleigh and Chatham Avenues."
When is the last time you've seen a folk art mural on a Home Depot or Lowe's?
When Smaller Can Be Better
Want a handful of loose bolts? Forget The Home Depot; they want you to buy an entire box. At Ace, you buy just the six you need. Best of all, you can dart into Ace--without getting snarled up in mile-long aisles. In fact, at one point years ago, I would make special arrangements with any companions ahead of when entering Home Depot, just to make sure we did not get lost from each other forever.
True, you do pay for the local, fuzzy chumminess with higher prices. I must say that. And you'll never find a two-by-twelve at Ace Hardware. But it is a good place to start.
Good, too, is the fact that new Home Depot CEO Frank Blake is making radical changes to bring the high-flying, head-in-the-clouds Home Depot back to Earth.
- Great local flavor in Ace Hardware stores.
- Friendly staff, and often quite well-versed in all matters home-related.
- Possible to buy small quantities.
- Faster in and out.
Since I first wrote this article, Home Depot has swung back into the home improvement forefront. Lowe's stores, at one time, had seemed impervious to decay and disorder. Now, I am finding nice, sparkling Home Depots and disorganized, dingy Lowe's.