Underrated in America: Local hardware stores

toolsLouie is the go-to guy in our local hardware store, Mazzone's. Most of the time, all we have to do is stand in the entryway of the small store and tell him what we need. My husband, who manages several apartments, is there constantly, consulting with Louie about the right size nuts and bolts or looking for some small bit of something that will compensate for the imperfections in the very old buildings that he manages.

The Lowe's in our neighborhood is actually closer by a few hundred feet, and the Home Depot is only a five minute drive away, but while we spend a lot of time and money in those big box stores, we still trundle down to the local hardware store when we need something because it's convenient, friendly and the staff is helpful. No, it's not where we bought our tile to renovate our bathroom, or where we bought our cabinets. But it is where we get our keys made (the Lowe's never has anyone staffing the key stand), and where we pick up paint brushes, herbs for the garden and things like weatherstripping and drill bits.

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When Lowe's moved down the street about five years ago, I feared for Mazzone's, thinking that people would just go a few more feet to bargain shop in a huge store that would seem to have everything a fixer-upper could need. But therein lies the problem: When you are looking for one specific thing, going into a big store is annoying. When you need, say, three feet of quarter-inch plastic tubing to affix to the bottom of your air conditioner so it doesn't drip on your head, you want to just run in and grab it. And have a nice guy, like Louie, remind you that you'll need some kind of funnel (which he'll hand to you), and some waterproof tape. You can be in and out of the store in five minutes, rather than roaming the aisles forever, trying to find assistance and then waiting at the check-out at the chain store.

Local hardware stores are, of course, in trouble. Entrepreneur's statistic show that there were nearly 27,000 hardware stores in 2007, but most of the revenue is generated by the giant companies. Businesses with less than 20 employees -- or about 25,500 of the total -- only accounted for 0.0025% of the revenue. The bulk of the money, some $350 million, was generated by just 20 business with 250-plus employees.

Mazzone's is surviving for now, even thriving, thanks to good service. This year's Pumpkinfest, when the store spills out onto the sidewalk and has free food and activities for kids, was a major neighbohood event. The side yard is loaded with fresh flowers and plants for sale and you see a lot of people wandering around with the store's white-and-red bags. It has turned itself into a friendly neighborhood fixture, winning people over with its charm -- so much so that it's become a field trip for the neighborhood preschool. There's no way Lowe's and Home Depot can match that.

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