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Rivets, Trivets and Galvanised Buckets: Life in the Village Hardware Shop

Tom Fort

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And now let us sing of mousetraps and flypaper, nails and screws, buckets and plant plugs, the extraordinary miscellany of goods displayed in every right-thinking ironmongery. The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury once wrote a piece praising "the Great American 'What am I doing here and why did I buy that?' Hardware Store".

This is Tom Fort's British riposte, written as a member of a family that runs such an establishment in his little Oxfordshire village. Bradbury suggested that vendors of all things bright and beautiful should carry signs outside proclaiming "Hardware spoken here". Fort writes: "Hardware is definitely spoken in our shop."

We might suggest that this is an extraordinary book, but it is hard to say that when its author has already written tomes on lawns, eels, the weather and the A303. He battens on to crazy subjects and writes about them irresistibly - to me, anyway. Like all great eccentrics, he does what comes naturally.

In 2018 Shro, his son's partner, now wife, decided to take on the long-established local hardware store, Heath & Watkins, whose proprietor was retiring. This has since become a family concern in which Tom's wife, Helen, the odd daughter and Tom himself have become engaged, to the point of obsession.

His book is partly a charming tale of how they learnt to be shopkeepers, and partly backstories of some of the products they sell. He traces Kilner jars back to their 1840s originator, the glassmaker John Kilner in Wakefield. Sandpaper was invented over two centuries ago, and recommended in John Nicholson's 1825 manual The Operative Mechanic and British Machinist. Fort recounts the development of lightbulbs by Edison and Swan - "we will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles".

Do you know what a trivet is? I did not until I read here that it is a metal stand to support a pot or kettle on a stove. Rivets were also big business (Heath & Watkins still sells them) and if Harland & Wolff had done a better job fastening their plates on the Titanic, the wretched boat might never have sunk.

Fort recounts the evolution of the screw, from its origin in the late 18th century workshops of the brilliant Henry Maudslay and Joseph Clement. In 1841 another engineering genius, Joseph Whitworth, proposed standardisation. He suggested that the ideal thread angle was 55 degrees, with numbers of threads per inch specified.

The word ironmonger, an old synonym for hardware retailer, is Anglo-Saxon. In the mid-19th century such shops were incredibly smelly, because they sold paraffin, wax, polish, varnishes and oils. They were also vendors of fire grates, bellows, coal scuttles and - in 1881 - the most expensive item, a Piper & Theobald patent refrigerator with improved ventilation, priced at just under £15.

Fort's book becomes lyrical as he describes the evolution of DIY, especially after the Second World War, with a terrific boost in the 1960s from the TV DIY instructor Barry Bucknell, whose BBC series attracted seven million viewers. Magazines such as Homemaker and Do It Yourself also sold well, and DIY husbands - almost never wives - were portrayed as bronzed supermen.

Dare I say it, I was once pretty good with a toolbox myself. As a young married man I papered, painted, pointed, laid paving, built cupboards. Not all my shelves stayed on the wall, and we will draw a veil over the time I used gloss paint on the outside of our house. But I related to Fort's hymn to DIY.

The art enjoyed a revival during lockdown, which was also hugely profitable for the family store. Today, however, DIY is once more in eclipse, especially among the young, influenced, the author believes, by their late entry to house ownership. I question that. I reckon the kids just do not see the fun to be had with a Black & Decker.

The Fort store apparently continues to flourish. One of Shro's customers says: "This place is dangerous . . . whenever I come in, I see something I want that I didn't know I wanted." I feel the same in our own lovely hardware shop in Hungerford. This book tells a quirky tale of a subculture, a shrine where many of us worship. It made my fingers itch to get to my drill again.

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