MACHIAS, Maine — Turn back the clock, take a deep breath and slow down when you visit the Machias Hardware Co. on U.S. Route 1, because you are visiting another time. A time when the person behind the counter really knew which tool you needed or which nail to buy.
A time before big-box home supply stores, when service was what really mattered and the owners not only knew your name but remembered exactly which color paint you need to match.
Take a deep breath again and look around. The place has the look and feel of permanence about it.
Antique tools hang from the back walls, vintage soda bottles line a shelf and railroad oil lamps decorate the beams. The floor is hand-oiled hardwood and you can buy everything from a crock to make pickles to a cast-iron skillet for trout; from nails and screws and hammers and brushes to pungent spices and organic flour.
This is the way hardware stores used to be — a place to find just about everything you need, including a friend to talk to or one to argue politics with.
The store has been on Main Street for a century, although Paul Hoyt’s dad didn’t buy it until 1951, more than 57 years ago.
Today, Hoyt and his two adult children, Sandra and Michael, run the store single-handedly. They are the only employees and they know just about everyone — and everything — worth knowing in town.
When the bell rings on the front door, a visitor is just as likely to be teased about his poor fishing luck as asked, with caring, about an ailing family member.
With one foot planted firmly in a bygone era, Paul Hoyt is realistic, however, about his store’s ability to compete with the chain stores and big-box improvement stores. It seems that the neighborhood hardware store, once a cultural and social foundation of every town, more often than not has fallen victim to the megachain store.
“We can’t compete,” Hoyt said. “That’s why we diversify. That’s why we have a natural foods market. That’s why we sell flour and mustard and spices. You can get a wooden clothes rack here as well as all the hardware you need.”
Hoyt said his business is built on regular patrons, customers who return again and again for his service, knowledge of the business and attention to detail. But he gets his fair share of tourists, too.
“Service is the most important thing we offer,” he said. “We know a lot of our customers. We need them to return. Of course, we are threatened by the big boxes. People don’t think anything of driving to Ellsworth.”
Part of the Hoyts’ strategy involves an inventory built on the understanding that many of their customers will buy power tools at the big-box stores.
“So we’ll stock the drills, saw blades and grinding wheels for those tools,” Paul Hoyt said.
“We don’t carry light fixtures, for example, because we can’t match The Home Depot selection,” he said. “But we do stock the switches, boxes and wires to hook those fixtures up.”
Hoyt said that when his customers shop at a big-box store, they expect lower prices and less help; when they come to him, they expect to pay a little more and get a lot of help. They also appreciate the store’s willingness to sell, for example, an individual drill bit instead of a set, or a few bolts or screws instead of an entire box.
Free homespun advice often comes along with a purchase, something lacking in mega-chains.
Michael Hoyt recently advised a new homeowner to put steel wool around the water pipe entrances of her home to deter mice when she returned to purchase additional mouse-traps.
Sandra warned against too many bird feeders because she knew that particular neighborhood was full of deer.
So while the store retains the charm of days gone by, it continues to thrive in a thoroughly modern world.
“We’ll not only sell you the parts, but we’ll make sure you understand just how to install those parts,” Paul Hoyt said. “We take the time to help you solve your problem.”
It’s all about service for the Hoyt family. “We rely on our customers coming back tomorrow, or next week,” Hoyt said. “We can’t afford not to serve them well.”