By Steven Pomerantz
From 1948 to 1979, my father and uncle, the sons of immigrant Russian Jews, owned a hardware store on the east side of Detroit. Similar to many new Americans, their parents had been chased from their homeland and began chasing new opportunities (and the burgeoning auto industry), first in Ft. Wayne, Ind., and then in Detroit. But life in the industrial Midwest was only slightly less harsh for the brothers, and as the city decayed the hardware store stood as a fortified outpost on the hostile prairie surrounding it.
The store was located on Gratiot Avenue, a major radial avenue running northeast out of downtown that had originated as an Indian trading route. It was later used as a supply road to Fort Gratiot, Mich., near Port Huron, during the War of 1812. It occupied a WWI-era, two-story brown brick building which was half a city block long and itself reminded me of a fort, with shield-like medallions ornamenting the top and arched groupings of second-story windows that had long since been boarded up. It was in a crumbling neighborhood of empty lots and dilapidated buildings. Across the side street adjoining it was a seedy apartment building and a church, and abutting the alley behind the store was a rundown playground which had become a thriving drug marketplace. On the other side of the building was a small, garbage-strewn lot ringed with barbed wire, next to which was a safe company whose owner, my father said, was an anti-Semite.
It was what we now term an “old- fashioned hardware store,” complete with bins of nails, wire rug beaters, washboards, nuts and bolts that could be purchased by the piece, and wallpaper steamers to rent. Paint thinner was pumped from giant barrels into gallon jugs that customers brought into the store with them, and nails were weighed on an ancient set of scales. Outside, along the storefront, samples of merchandise offered inside were displayed (wheelbarrows, linoleum rugs, rolls of wiring, etc.), all chained together and secured with a padlock in case they decided to “wander off,” as my father was fond of saying. There was even a giant “Mac-O-Lac” brand paint can affixed to the roof of the building so that drivers coming into the city knew what kind of business went on inside, much like businesses that had barber poles and giant eyeglasses in earlier times. Cigar-chomping Jewish sales representatives from our wholesale suppliers, with names like Irv, Seymour and Harold, constantly seemed to be roaming the aisles, stopping only to take note of items to be re-ordered or kibitzing with my father. My father gave easy credit to good customers and rarely got burned for it. Personalized service and the question “Can I help you?” meant something more than being pointed to Aisle 32 by a slack-jawed greeter. In a pre-Home Depot world, it was a dependable and essential part of the community.
When the store opened for business in the ‘40s, it was surrounded by an Italian middle-class neighborhood that was transitioning to a black, lower class neighborhood. By the ‘60s, nearly all of the customers were black, though the businesses that remained on Gratiot Avenue were still largely owned by Italians and Jews. In an amusing irony, during the early ‘70s, after parts of Detroit were seized by black gang violence, the store became part of “Coney-Oney” gang territory, Coney-Oney being a mangling of the Italian Corleone mob-family name from The Godfather movie that had opened in 1972.
The store had regular customers whose real names you couldn’t make up, such as Sugar Pie Cline, Merry Christmas and Mother Waddles, who ran a faith-based mission that still exists. If other characters at the store lacked sufficiently colorful names, they were given nicknames by my father and his brother. Among them were “Mushmouth,” an employee who couldn’t be understood; “Skin”, a plumbing handyman of indeterminate age with leathery skin who wore a uniform of sunglasses, a crisp white short-sleeved shirt and a hat, and was always hanging around, as much a fixture in the store as the front counter. He was there most often to try and get work from customers, other times to get sober from too much “Sweet Lucy” the night before, all the while holding court on bags of fertilizer or rock salt (depending on the season), telling tales of his visits to New Orleans; “Bigfoots,” a tall handyman with huge mutton-chops who took every job that came through the door, a proud family man and a tireless, dependable worker; and “Feets,” another handyman, who used his feet to measure projects instead of a tape measure. The default nickname given to anyone who quoted the ways of the scripture and the virtues of their church was “Reverend.”
The employees reflected the many ethnicities of the city. Carl, who was black and probably the longest tenured employee of the store, was the de facto floor manager of the business and somebody my father and his brother trusted to act as their liaison with the more radicalized and empowered members of the black community. A small, wiry man with a receding hairline, moustache and tinted glasses, he dealt effectively with those who were identified as troublemakers or as having an attitude by my father, even brokering a peace with the Coney-Oneys. He was “hip” and greeted customers by saying “What can I do you for?” or “What it is!”
Roger, the resident Pole, was a tall man with slicked-back greased hair who could fix anything and would let you know about it. Ricky, a Latino man with long hair, glazed eyes and a wispy moustache, gave me sales tips on how to promote grass fertilizers we sold in the store as being perfectly adequate for growing weed, a thriving second career for some of our customers. And he knew more about the genius of Jimi Hendrix than anyone I ever met.
Norman, a self-styled ladies man; Ralph, a one-eyed alcoholic who had perfected the two syllable pronunciation of “shee-it”; and Chris, our Greek connection to bookies and tickets to the Lions games, rounded out the colorful cast.
But when it came to the clientele, my father and uncle were always obsessed with “the Schvartz.” The Schvartz (Yiddish for a black person) meant lazy, drunks, unreliable, thieves, stupid or chayas (animals, in Yiddish). To the Schvartz, Dad and my uncle were Jews–greedy, exploitative, cheap, rip-off artists, devils. This much everybody understood and formed the basis for an uneasy alliance–they needed each other too much to let their mutual dislike get in the way. But as always in these types of things, it was more complicated than that. The neighborhood black community was made up of my father’s friends and enemies. They were the source of his livelihood and the bane of his existence.
I was taught that the Schvartz were to be approached with suspicion, de-humanized as cartoon characters you could share a good laugh about. And I was told to remember that “as much as the Schvartz hate you, they hate each other more,” as if that excused our attitudes about them.
On a July day in 1967, a race riot broke out in Detroit. The city had been simmering with racial tension for decades, and the riot was said to have been ignited by a police raid on a blind pig in the early morning. A blind pig was a private club where liquor was served illegally after hours. Looting was spreading throughout the city and several city blocks were on fire, including some near the store.
During the following days, the city was locked down in a state of emergency; however, the police and National Guard allowed business owners to enter the city, assess their damages and make necessary repairs. The store was found untouched, though surrounding businesses did not fare as well. My father attributed this to his good relations with the black community, but it could have been just dumb luck.
The combination of a race riot and a sprawling freeway system accelerated the white flight to the suburbs that had begun post WWII. Three of those freeways were known as The Chrysler, The Ford and The Fischer–the great auto barons giving their names to the enablers of the migration out of the city, in cars they had built. It was no longer an acceptable place to live or work for a lot of people. Following the civil unrest, the social and economic breakdown in this area of the city was swift, and violence became an everyday occurrence. Fear, which had always been a quiet presence, now demanded attention and gripped my father’s existence from that point on. However, moving the store was never discussed and, much like the generations of mice, rats and spiders who inhabited the store, my father and his brother were too comfortable to leave. It was easier selling what they always sold, to those they always sold it to, in a building they already owned. At least they knew fear and how to deal with it, but hope was a scarier proposition.
After the riot (Detroiters always mark time as pre- or post-riot), the store stayed in much the same condition as it had existed from the 1940s. It was either a time capsule or a tomb, depending on your perspective, and had an atmosphere of cold cement floors, inexplicably pink walls (my father read somewhere that pink made people want to buy), harsh fluorescent lighting and dry air infused with concrete dust. Even the expansion into the carpet store space next door (it was known as the “Carpet Barn”) was no occasion to change its barn-like motif, nor clean the blood-soaked carpeted area where a disgruntled ex-employee had taken an axe to its owner.
Thus, what change did occur at the store was done in the interest of protecting it against the siege of outside forces. A large fluorescent orange sign with big black letters, reading NOTICE! THIS STORE IS PROTECTED BY AN ARMED GUARD, was prominently placed at the check-out counter (my father was the “armed guard”). In addition to an alarm system, most windows were boarded up, and the few storefront windows that remained were converted to plate glass. This worked out fine until the plate glass became riddled with holes from BB guns, the BBs proudly sold at our hardware store. The solution to this, in addition to halting the sale of BBs, was to replace the plate glass with a thick plastic glass that had the otherworldly name of Lexan. When even that eventually seemed vulnerable, a metal grate system was installed across the storefront, thus further suffocating what little natural light was permitted to enter. But the final step in the entombing of the store was the decision to install steel plated doors on all of the rear entrances and to secure each of those doors during closing hours with three heavy padlocks on the inside. For convenience, the keys to the padlocks were hung on chains next to the door.
The store was now impenetrable, until late one night when my father got a call from the alarm company notifying him that one of the rear doors had been breached. When we arrived early the next morning, it was clear what had happened: my father had been so focused on preventing a break-in that he overlooked the potential for a “break-out.” It seemed that a couple of enterprising criminals figured out that the large, deep area under the stairs to the second floor, where we kept empty boxes and other packing material until garbage day, would be an ideal place to hide until the store was closed. So it was not hard to imagine that sometime after the store closed, the criminals emerged from their hiding place, selected the strongest sledgehammer and pick-axe that were on display, and took their time busting open the large safe in the store’s office. Then, after also cleaning out the cash register, they calmly unlocked one of the rear doors with the conveniently placed keys and walked out into the night. Using another word my father cynically favored, they had “liberated” the cash.
Inside the store, the customers, employees and owners now preyed upon each other like animals in a jungle. Employees exchanged knowing glances, indicating when it was safe to take cash from the register or merchandise out to their car. Customers would go to empty aisles and pocket items, sometimes confronted by my father with the phrase “Either you put that back, or I take this out,” saying it with a smile on his face while patting his front pocket where he kept a gun, akin to a sheriff in the westerns he so loved. Correspondingly, if a customer wanted a type of paint we didn’t have in stock, my father would have me furiously re-label cans of paint behind the scenes so we could make the sale “interior white, exterior white, it’s all the same shit and they’ll never know the difference,” he would say. And I’ll never know whether the incredibly high prices our customers complained about were because the store had a near monopoly on hardware items in the area, or because, as my father told me, our costs to insure the store against fire and theft were astronomical. I want to believe that all the cheating and stealing evened itself out over the years.
But the irony is that the demise of the store didn’t come because of theft, fire, violence or any other threat my father spent years trying to insulate himself from. It didn’t even happen because business was bad. In 1978, he realized that his brother had been embezzling money from the store for several years, something my uncle would confess to when later confronted. For a business built on offering solutions, there were none for this particular problem, and the store was soon sold to another unfortunate soul for a fraction of its value.
Years later, shortly before my father died, I went back to visit the store with him. The surrounding area now looked even more grim and barren, part of the transition of Detroit into its frontier status of today. I wondered if it had always looked this way and we just couldn’t see it. But even before entering the store there was the palpable sense that he couldn’t wait to leave, that he was somehow tempting fate by going back and the odds would catch up with him this time. He wore an uneasy smile, like he had cheated death. We left quickly, the weight of 30 years of fending off all the enemies too much to bear. Before we did, I glanced back and saw the familiar look of resignation, fear and desperation on the new owner’s face. He looked like my father.
Steven Pomerantz was born and raised in Detroit and now lives in Boulder, Colo.
All photos courtesy of Steven Pomerantz.