Last fall, wanting to expand into new categories, I began evaluating small artisan candlemakers.
The adventure began on Etsy, where I discovered an unexpected scent called “Hardware Store.” This was part of a masculine line of unique smells like French Fry, Gone Fishing, and Firefighter. But, Hardware Store?!
Every shop has its scent, right? Florist, pet food, meat market. Think about the last time you were in a department store, no doubt before the pandemic. At the entrance are cosmetics; the sweet, spicy odors drawing shoppers inside. But other articles carry a distinct smell, too, like cotton, or denim as well as the leathery smell of shoes and the lacquer of furnishings. Blindfolded, you could probably guess where you stood in a Macy’s solely on what your olfactory senses told you.
Hardware stores can be like that, too.
The cleaning aisle can be astringent (from cleansers and cleaners) or fragrant, thanks to the additives in soaps. A paint department can have a sweet odor from latex resins or carry a sharp scent of petroleum. And let us not overlook gardening; fertilizers, organic or otherwise, smell awful. And steer manure or chicken poop, well, grab your nose.
However, shoppers of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s of our Crockett store experienced something completely different. The storefront was tiny, perhaps 1000 square feet, and we did something special, fully polluting the air in the small building with an odor that lasted for months. Our secret? We oiled the hardwood floors!
In rural and small-town stores, floors were often made of wood planks. To keep the dust down, merchants routinely mopped with a light, petroleum-based oil and while it initially had an unpleasantly strong odor, it worked well; dust would get weighed down making it easy to sweep. Twice a year, my father and uncle would return to the store after hours – keep in mind this was on top of their regular sixty-hour weeks – lace up old shoes and swab the deck with a lightweight oil out of a 5 gallon can. Simultaneously mopping and rearranging fixtures, they sent oil in every direction, hitting all the corners and ruining their shoes. And the dust? It would be encased in oil and collected nicely in a dust pan.
This was the scent of a vintage hardware store.
It had been forty years since I was last in the building and, wanting to smell the past, I ventured over to Crockett one day, dropping in to see our old neighbor, Dr. Doug Yarris. Doug took over his father’s dental practice decades ago and, now joined by his son who is also a dentist, runs the practice. Doug leases our old hardware store and was thrilled to open it so that I could take a look-see. But after unlocking the heavy, double swinging doors, I was shocked. Nothing looked familiar! Remodeled and re-painted, the premises were bright, open, and airy; without fixtures, dark walls, and dim lighting, it seemed much smaller than what I had remembered as a boy. I was looking forward to seeing a floor I had swept a million times, its wood grain holding tightly together, dark from decades of late-night oil sessions. So, standing there and wishing for a bit of déjà vu, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, like the way a sommelier might with a glass of fine wine. Sucking air over my tongue and nostrils, I was expecting to taste a familiar and powerful memory of my boyhood: the scent of a hardware store!
Alas, as is often the case, the smell of youth is elusive. There was nothing. No smell, no scent, no ennui. And, frankly, no floor! Looking down, the entire premises were nothing but cheap, plywood underlayment. The hardwood floor was gone! And with it, my youth! I was stunned!
“What the hell happened?!” I whined.
Doug saw my distress and explained the unfortunate drama. Sub-leasing the storefront to two men a few years ago, he was not aware of their drug use let alone their misdemeanor background. They paid rent late, and then not at all. Then began months of eviction proceedings. When finally forced out, the two scumbags destroyed the place. Worse, and to my dismay, they removed and sold off the entire tight-grained, oiled hardwood floor. I left, devastated.
Weeks later, I’m still angry. But not all is lost. I reached out to the candlemaker and ordered the scent called “Hardware Store.”
Feature photo: Larry Pedrotti, 1948, Crockett, CA