The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

I used to pass Becker’s Hardware several times a day.  It was one store south of the corner of 78th Street and Lexington on the west side of the street and was on my way to school.

Although I had only been inside once when my dad sent me to pick something up for him, I loved that store – particularly after Thanksgiving.  The window display which normally contained hammers and workboxes and hand saws was replaced for the Holiday season by a little mountain, train tracks and a small Lionel train.  The train consisted of an engine, a coal car, a lumber car and a caboose.

On the window Mr. and Mrs. Becker had installed a round silver circular disc, and if you put your hand on it, the heat from your body activated a switch and the train made one trip around the mountain and then came to a halt.  There was always a line of kids wanting to send the train on its journey – including me.  It was one of the little Holiday traditions that I loved as a child.

One Friday evening as we were sitting in the living room one of the lamps began making a noise.  Suddenly it went out and there was a smell of something burning.  Dad quickly unplugged the lamp from the wall socket and began examining it.  He saw that the lamp’s cord was frayed.  As it happened, this lamp was one of mom’s favorites – and she naturally wanted it repaired.

Dad sold lamps – and he always had a large supply of wire for them as they were made to order for his customers.  Normally, he would have gone to the office on Saturday, picked up some wire and brought it home to do the job.  But this Saturday we were scheduled to go to Tice Farms in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey to get peaches, which were in season.  Grandma used to buy a half bushel of them and freeze them for our enjoyment during the winter.

Of course, I was looking forward to the trip.  Tice Farms also made their own ice cream.  Their peach ice cream was so smooth and creamy and loaded with large chunks of fruit.  It was one of my favorite food memories as a child and still is to this day.

So the next morning dad and I went to Becker Hardware to buy a length of electric cord so he could repair the lamp.  When we walked in, the store looked as it had the one time I had previously been there.

Neatly organized along the wall behind the counter were row after row and drawer after drawer of all sorts of hardware things.  Washers, nuts, nails, screws all clearly marked with their size.

Mrs. Becker was helping another customer when we came in, but she took the time to say, “Good morning.  I’m just finishing up and will be with you in a moment.  Thank you for coming in.”  She said it with an obvious sincerity which was the way that small business owners attracted and retained their customers.

“Okay, Fred, let’s see.  We have seven washers at three cents each.”  As she said this she wrote that down on a little piece of paper.  “Twenty-two nails, two cents each … four nuts – five cents each …”  And she continued until she had tallied up Fred’s entire order  – which amounted to $1.40 plus four cents sales tax.  She handed the sheet to Fred for him to check for accuracy and he handed her two dollars.

Mrs. Becker asked him if he would like a bag for each item or would it be okay to put them all together.  Fred said one bag would do.  So Mrs. Becker scooped everything into a little paper bag, reached under the counter and pulled out her cash box.  It was a colorful kid’s lunch box.  She put the two dollars in and hunted around for fifty-six cents change which she gave to Fred who thanked her and left the store.

She then turned to us and said, “How are you today?  May I help you?”  Again, her cheerfulness radiated in her questions.

Dad had brought the old wire with us and said that he wanted to replace it.  Mrs. Becker looked at it and said, “Oh my goodness.  It’s a good thing you were home when this shorted out.  It might have started a fire.  Well, we’ll get you all fixed up.”

She took the old wire and measured it against new electric cord which was hanging in a roll on the wall and cut the appropriate amount.  “Do you want a new plug as well for it?”, she asked.  Dad thought for a second and said, “Sure, let’s get a new plug as well.”  So she went to her “plug” drawers and found one that exactly matched the old one.  She then folded the cord and was going to put it and the plug in a bag when dad said, “We’re only just going around the corner.  You don’t have to bother with a bag.”

Mrs. Becker said, “Oh, thank you.  You’d be surprised how much those brown paper bags cost.  I appreciate it.  That will be $1.12 including tax.”

Well, dad and I took our wire and plug home and the family headed off to New Jersey.  When we returned, my mind still thinking about the wonderful ice cream I had enjoyed and the frozen peaches which were coming that fall and winter, I was content.  Dad immediately set to re-wiring the lamp, which took him about fifteen minutes – and mom was happy that one of her favorite lamps was again operational.  All was well.

I thought about that experience at Becker’s Hardware the other day.  Several of my landscape lights had decided to burn out simultaneously and I wanted to replace them.  So I went to one of the hardware “superstores” to find new halogen bulbs.

I knew where the lighting section was in this store so I anticipated just going in, making my selection and using the self-checkout to finish my purchase.  I didn’t want to spend a lot of time there as I had Gracie with me in the car and, although it was early morning, I didn’t want to expose her to the rising temperature any longer than necessary.

Of course, having made the tour of the bulb aisle I couldn’t find what I needed.  I went to customer service and asked if they allowed companion dogs in the store.  As it turned out, they did.  So I went back to the car and brought Gracie back with me.

Then I began looking for an employee who could help me locate my bulbs.  I was glad that I had retrieved Gracie as trying to find someone to help me took almost fifteen minutes.  But I finally succeeded in locating one of the store personnel who knew where the bulbs were.  Of course, they were right in front of me.  I had just missed them.

When we returned home I set the bulbs on the counter.  Then I looked, I mean really looked, at my purchase.

The bulbs themselves measured 1/2” x 1-1/2”.  The packaging which held them measured 3” x 6”.  In other words, we had 18 square inches of packaging to hold 3/4 square inches of product – a twenty-four to one ratio of packaging to product.  What a waste.  And I couldn’t help but wonder how much of my $4.98 per bulb cost was because of that packaging and not the product it contained.

Of course, when I removed the bulbs I did put the packaging in my recycle bin.  I am not sure whether the plastic component will actually be recycled or just get pulled and sent to a landfill.  I removed the cardboard inserts which held the bulbs in place and am hopeful that they at least will find their way back into a new life as something useful.

It’s been many years since I went into Becker’s Hardware.  I would be surprised if the store is still in business.   But I can still hear Mrs. Becker thanking dad for sparing her the expense of a brown paper bag.

With the way we purchase and package products today, what is the cost – not just in terms of our out of pocket expense – but the ultimate cost, the denigration of our most precious resource, our environment?  I’m guessing it’s pretty high.



  1. Thanks. The hardware store the only retail store I ever remember dad going to (and that rarely). I worked for a time in one, it’s a tough business, huge inventory, low turnover and margins. There are few left, which is a shame. the boxes have pretty much killed them (as well as the lumberyard). The other thing is that their market was mostly people that fixed things, that is so quaint itself now.

    The other thing that went with them was the quality, you literally cannot buy quality lumber to build with today. One of many reasons that I would not buy a new-built house.

    As to your point on packaging, when I worked the store we had, in some cases, identical parts in bulk or in display packages. Off the pegboard they cost about twice as much and sold twice as fast. Less work for the customer, I suppose.

    You know there were two places to go if you were a man, when I was young. The hardware store, and the barbershop, now they’re both pretty much gone. Wonder what that means?

  2. I would have ordered the replacement bulbs online – but I had my three golden retriever guests coming over and they like to roam around the backyard at night before they come inside for their rest. The first source I checked had these bulbs in quantities of 20 at $1.50 per bulb including shipping. As I recall from a previous order, they came in a little plastic wrapper inside a small, thin cardboard box. Much less waste and thirty percent of the cost.

    Yes, the days of Mayberry and Floyd the barber are now gone. Perhaps the craze for head shaving has hastened their demise. At least ladies still have the beauty salon – the epicenter for female news gathering and disseminating, (i.e., gossip).

  3. Send me to a hardware shop or computer shop and I’m in heaven! LOL

  4. I reposted this to Facebook, and hope you don’t mind that I shared. I love this example of how “modern conveniences” have led us down many a path of poor stewardship, “green technology” notwithstanding!

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