Glen's 'hole-istic' repair
Nostalgia for the days when we actually tried to repair things
Each time my 13-year-old curiosity stood at the top of the stairway that descended into the store’s basement, I experienced both a woozy sensation of uneasiness and a rising sense of adventure. If the bare bulb dangling from a cord seemed to wink at me, I would go just far enough to crouch on a stair and peek through the openings under each tread, my hand sliding along a cold length of pipe that served as a railing. Then, if the other lights in the basement were on, I would enter that damp and murky cavern.
My father was the sole proprietor of a few small businesses during his life, a gas station, a neighborhood grocery and a hardware store when I was old enough to remember. I don’t think he ever had any employees, other than my mother who acted as the sometimes-clerk-full-time bookkeeper, and us, their three growing children who helped with the chores.
I also remember a much older man named Glen, who also wasn’t paid a salary. My father inherited him along with his pre-existing fix-it shop when he bought the business, as they say, lock, stock and barrel. Glen occupied an illuminated space among the basement clutter, and most days after my father opened the store, Glen worked at his bench situated in the middle of it all, troubleshooting the quirks of the many small appliances his customers delivered to him with a hope that he could fix it.
The narrow basement ran like a subterranean corridor under the full, considerable length of the store above it. Hewn of stone and block, held together with concrete, its walls were lined with greasy machinery and shelves cradling boxes from the previous owner’s unsold stock. Had I been reborn as Howard Carter, that basement would have served as my King Tut’s tomb.
Business practices in the 1960s followed far different strategies than today. No podcasts, social media or YouTube-generated instruction videos. No assault of digital junk mail generated by computers from what seems like a world away, and no digital stalkers shadowing you each time you open your browser.
Glen’s basement fix-it shop stood for a more holistic approach. He dealt with a product-based community face-to-face. He studied how things were put together in order to take them apart. The appliances his customers brought to him were broken but designed so they COULD actually be taken apart and repaired. The parts made up the whole, and if he had to, Glen would craft a solution from the graveyard of parts around him.
Now, every power cord has to be made with a different connector. An endless stream of updates is often the only way to fix glitches that arrived with the previous update. Storage space is sold by the gigabyte because the digital shelves can also be sold. So many products are offered to us by subscription or predictable obsolesce that I am convinced we think of ourselves as gods.
Glen’s presence made the basement feel safer, but he never struck me as an open or talkative man. I never learned about his personal life or any of his secrets. He always acknowledged my presence or showed me where to go when I arrived in his kingdom, usually to bring some item upstairs to my father who asked for it. I looked forward to my father’s “go and fetch me” expeditions, because the hardware business upstairs stifled my imagination. As children, our role in the business on weekends and school holidays involved keeping an eye on wandering customers while my father helped them one by one. When we had free time, we took turns playing with the combination dial on the old safe in the back room that nobody knew the combination to, not even my father. It came with the store. We imagined one day we’d figure it out and find treasure inside.
No wonder my memories of Glen were reawakened when I read a Buzzfeed article reporting a string of testimonies about professions that have vanished or are on the verge of disappearing. Paperboys, cobblers, door-to-door sales, blacksmiths, typesetters, full-service gas station attendants, tiny huts in the middle of a parking lot, not selling coffee, but promising one hour film developing, all going the way of the dinosaurs.
And ... according to —u/sonia72quebec... “repairmen.”
She wrote, “When I was a kid and something broke, you would just take it to the local repairman and he would fix it. These guys could fix anything. They had a small shop where they had parts for everything, in some sort of comforting chaos. I’ve been looking for a couple of years now to find someone to fix my ’60s toaster. Even the company doesn’t have any ideas where I could send it.”
Dear Sonia, if I had a time machine, you could borrow it.
– David Feela