This article first appeared in MAKE Volume 38, on pages 24–25.
It’s a good thing that a local hacker named Skunk broke down in front of Boston’s legendary Masse Hardware Company one day while driving his chainsaw-powered bicycle. His bike featured a small, 38CC chainsaw engine attached to the back using a series of belts and rotors. Everything was going fine when a rack holding the engine vibrated loose. The Masse staff — Dave, Manny, Joe, and Lee — came out to examine Skunk’s ride, sold him a Lexan bushing to fix it, then brought Skunk into the back room and helped file it to size. They even waved him off as he ripped down the road. Total sale: 85 cents.
Sadly, Masse closed its doors late in 2013 after 125 years in business. It may be an apt time to celebrate the small, independent hardware joint. When faced with a tough technical challenge, shopkeepers of longtime establishments know how to bring its eclectic inventory and longstanding experience to bear. “Describe what you’re up to,” marvels Don Dunklee, a Michigan-based creator of solar-powered scooters,“and these rare individuals get inside your head and figure out what you need.”
We talked to some of the great mind readers in hardware stores across the country and offer a look at four of them. In most cases, we asked members of local hackerspaces in various cities where they turn when stumped by a thorny technical issue. People knew their favorite store instantly, or else knew there wasn’t one nearby.
We chose independent stores for this list because of their eclectic inventory. While national chain stores can certainly be a good resource for hardware, their wares are usually standard. But franchise stores, such as Ace or Do-It-Best, have independent ownership so they stock items according to local customer needs or whims. Most of the examples listed are remarkably similar in their layout: isles supersaturated with strange tools and devices, just the kind of chaos that shakes loose creativity.
Size: 60,000 sq. ft.
Collective Experience: 117 years
Strangest Project Assist: Ball Aerospace and Technologies spacecraft
McGuckin’s is the nation’s largest independent hardware store; its size rivals a big-box store and its inventory exceeds most national retailers. “They have everything, literally everything,” says Steve Garran, chief creator at makerspace Club Workshop in Denver. Although Garran only gets out of Denver once in a while, he wishes “McGuck’s” was in his backyard. On a recent trip to Boulder for a robotics event, Garran desperately needed an obscure fine-threaded metric bolt, late on a Saturday afternoon. “Those guys have one of everything and they know where it is,” he says. “McGuck’s leads you to want to move to Boulder.”
Even though the store is huge, with 275 employees, it still manages to retain the local flavor of its start. Dogs are allowed as long as they’re on a leash. One of the founders of the store, Dave Hight, still comes in with a feather duster in his back pocket, cleaning off shelves and telling dirty jokes. “He’s a little bit like Santa Claus,” says blogger Sarah Studer. Trying to describe her appreciation for the place, Studer notes, “The employees have never once judged my mother and I for asking them to assist us in building the most bizarre contraptions for our home.”
Of all the things he’s sold, Randy Dilkes, a store manager, is most proud of the McGuckin items used by engineers from local firm Ball Aerospace and Technologies. “We have bolts, hoses, and connectors floating around in space right now,” he says. Other technical challenges arise from University of Colorado engineering professors as well as the various makers visiting the store. “You need a giant slingshot?” asks Barker. “You come tell me how big.”
Los Angeles, Calif.
Size: 3,000 sq. ft.
Collective Experience: 65 years
Strangest Project Assist: The Batmobile
A few times a week, Luky (LOO-Key) Salcedo gets a message from a major aerospace company, most often Boeing or Lockheed. It lists all the parts that the companies have removed from their factories as part of the government contracting process. Salcedo submits a bid for items, and if she wins the lot, she and her husband pick it up on enormous wooden pallets.
That’s the routine for 34 years, and Salcedo can’t think of anything she’d rather do. “I love to call up a customer and say, ‘Look, I got test equipment from NASA for you. It’s a foot high, all stainless, with hoses coming out everywhere. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a beautiful piece!’” She began working at age 14 for legendary salvage retailer Joe Factor, who taught her the business. Factor, who died in 2005, helped her as she struggled as a single mom in her 20s, and assisted her in establishing her own store when he closed his in 2000. “He wasn’t blood related,” says Salcedo. “More than that.”
Customers appreciate the family atmosphere of Luky’s and the weird items there. “I get fasteners, carburetor parts, and aluminum pieces for cents on the dollar for what it cost the government,” boasts AJ Elias, a builder of reproduction V8 hot rods. Elias sometimes goes just to marvel at things, like the box of giant, 2-inch drive, fine-threaded bolts he recently found. “Those would be perfect if I were putting together a jumbo jet,” he notes. L.A. provides Salcedo with a diverse clientele. Parts from the store were used in the movie props for Batman, Transformers, and Fast & Furious. Racing car and truck builders pore over her inventory to find things like aircraft seatbelts and carbon fiber panels. But she gets first look, of course — the store owner recently brought home gleaming aircraft hose clamps to use as napkin rings on her dining room table. “People say, ‘Oh my gosh, where did you get those?’ and I tell them that, well, you know, I know a special place.”
Size: 6,000 sq. ft.
Collective Experience: 93 years
Strangest Project Assist: Power Wheels Racing Series vehicle
Brooks feels like a second home to makerspace Ribbon Farm. “They are three blocks away, so we’re in there three to four times a day,” says Ribbon’s co-organizer Brian Mulloy. “The guys there are maker consultants, with tons of personality, history, and knowledge when talking about the things they sell.”
Baseball fans may know Brooks because it’s across from the old Tiger Stadium. In 1961, Mickey Mantle hit a baseball out of the stadium and into the Brooks parking lot, one of the longest home runs of his career. “We were here before Tiger Stadium and after,” says co-owner John Marroquin. “We went through the Depression, both world wars, the 67 riots, the 68 World Series, and the 84 World Series.” Marroquin says that they still keep large plywood sheets in the warehouse used to protect the windows after the Tigers won in 68 and 84.
Because of the store’s age, some items have been in the inventory for decades. “When you’re an old store, you accumulate a lot of stuff,” says Marroquin, reaching down to pick up a pair of horseshoe nippers. “Our inventory is ridiculous.” Brooks is also the only lumberyard left in Detroit, and all of its wood is protected under roofs. It sells new hardware stock, including fasteners, tools, and adhesives — all of which came in handy when Ribbon Farm built their under-$500 toy electric car entry in the Power Wheels Racing Series competition during Detroit Maker Faire.
Malloy says those at the makerspace like the selection as well as the old-school charm. “Over the years, they’ve resurfaced the parking lot so many times that it’s higher than the door sill,” he notes. “When it rains, the whole staff sandbags the front of the store in a mad panic. You’d think handy guys like that world have a workaround.” Perhaps. Or maybe they’re too busy helping customers mod electric go-carts.
Size: 8,000 sq. ft.
Collective Experience: 73 years
Strangest Project Assist: Shotgun renovation
“You won’t get Arduino boards there,” cautions My Inventor Club founder Shane Matthews. “But it’s the best specialty woodworking store in the country. Everyone who works there is a professional woodworker.” Started by a couple who graduated from Georgia Tech in the 70s, Highland gravitated from general-purpose hardware store to woodworking center over the last decade. But staff member Sidney Dew says that you don’t have to be a woodworker to shop there. “We’re not highfalutin’. People come in here all the time to tap our expertise,” he says. “I know finishing. Billy has made over 20 fine classical guitars. Sabiha builds furniture. Soha turns. There’s a huge range here,” says Dew.
My Inventor Club’s Matthews says that one of the store’s biggest triumphs didn’t have to do with wood at all. He came in looking for a way to trim out fiberglass and left with an oscillating cutter that worked perfectly for the job. In a similar fashion, potters often come in to buy edging tools. A Georgia Tech team relied on Highland for tips to put their ultra-light hang glider together. One customer learned how to build a wagon wheel, and another fixed a crack in a shotgun. As one customer said: “If you are of the age where you can remember high school shop class and loved the smell of tools, sawdust, and inspiration, then this is the place for you.”
More Maker Favorites
“Seven corners doesn’t do hardware kitsch. You weave through a dense maze of stuff packed to the ceiling. If you need a particular pan-head screw in an obscure size and length, they have it in stock.” —Michael Freiert, Twin Cities Maker
Leopoldi’s True Value Hardware
“Leopoldi’s is a sort of miracle hoard where anything can be found, but only if you ask how to find it. It’s twice as small as other stores and somehow seems to have even more stuff than them.” —Ranjit Bhatnagar, NYC Resistor
“A true traditional place, full of funky products and honest-to-goodness hardware tested and approved by the staff.” —Martin Bogomoln, ATX Austin
“Take a number and then a counter staff person leads you down aisles of nondescript boxes to your exact need.” —Maxwell Grad, Watershed PDX
“For a proper hardware store:Lenhart’s.” —Will Bradley, HeatSync Labs
Tell us about your favorites in the comments below.