"Back in the good old days," my grandfather once told me, "a hardware store was a hardware store.

"You didn't have these newfangled places with everything in little plastic boxes.

"If you wanted a pound of nails, they'd weigh 'em out for you and you'd only buy what you needed. If you had a window that needed fixin", they'd cut you a piece of glass to whatever size you wanted right there. And if you needed somethin" fixed and didn't know how, they'd tell you. Stores back then cared about their customers.

"Today all they've got are big wide aisles, fancy signs out front and clerks that don't know nothin" about fixin" things. Naw, hardware stores just ain't what they used to be."

But grandpa never visited Frager's Hardware at 1115 Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

If he had, he probably never would have come home.

A person could spend days just browsing through the jungle of hammers, hoses and hatchets and all sorts of other old-time doodads lining the narrow aisles of Frager's store, or a handful of others in the area.

Frager's is a do-it-yourselfer's paradise, where you can still find 70 kinds of nails in huge bins for sale by the pound. You can still get keys made and paints custom mixed. You can still get window shades and glass cut to size. You can still get advice on everthing from plumbing to electrical repairs.

Best of all, you can still find George Frager puttering around in the back - just like the good old days.

Frager, 73, who has worked in the store ever since his father founded it in 1920, sold the family business in 1975 to John Weintraub and Edwin Copenhaver, who had just graduated from George Washington University.

The new owners, both inexperienced in the business, talked Frager into staying on for a month to help them find their way through the thousands of boxes of old merchandise filling two large rooms, a barn-size basement and a rented shed next door.

Now, four years later, Frager still hangs around the old store.

And the owners, whom he treats like adopted sons, are glad to have him. They still can't find things Frager stashed away years ago.

"When I sold this, I had intended to retire and play golf every day," says Frager, who - short, balding and bespectacled - looks like everybody's grandfather.

"But I was used to getting up at five in the morning, and then what was I going to do? So I came here. I just hung out."

Frager hung out for about a year for no pay. Eventually, the new owners decided to pay him for part-time work, fixing windows and helping customers.

"I get involved in all this damn work here, because I do something in 10 minutes that takes someone else an hour," says Frager, puttying up a storm window to be repaired.

"People today are so damn dumb. They may do well in school, but they don't use good common sense. I didn't finish high school or nothin", but I have common knowledge."

Frager limps across the soiled wooden floor, helping customers pick out faucets, screws, wrenches and cords from boxes stacked high atop the ancient homemade wooden shelves. Old-time ladders on rollers along the sides are used to retrieve merchandise at high altitudes.

Frager is still the only one who knows where to find hundreds of thousands of odd items, from Army surplus coffee cups to foot-long bridge bolts, though he claims that the shop takes a thorough inventory at least once a year.

"We get 15 or 20 friends together," he says. "It's usually on a Sunday, so we fix 'em lunch here and spend all day taking inventory."

Harry Kroll, owner of District Lock and Hardware Co., at 505 Eighth Street SE, has given up taking inventory. When his collection of old merchandise gets too big, he just knocks out a wall or two to make more space.

"We built this balcony seven years ago," says Kroll, 60, sitting at a scuffed wooden desk overlooking his store from a balcony added on in the rear. "Had to knock out part of the ceiling to do it, but we had no other choice. We completely ran out of space downstairs."

Kroll ran out of space because of his growing collection of what he calls hardware: Old washboards. Peep sights. Screens that slide into windows. Brass doorknobs and handles. And oodles of locks, some as old as the store.

"A lot of stores, when they get merchandise that doesn't move for four or six months, they'll get rid of it. But we hang on to everything, because there's no telling when someone might need it," Kroll explains. "Every once in a while we have someone come in looking for something unusual, and when they find it here, they're overjoyed."

Old-time-hardware lovers are equally overjoyed when they discover the egg boxes at Read's Hardware, 4756 Lee Highway in Arlington.

"They used these back in the horse-and-buggy days," says John Read, opening a narrow tin box to reveal 12 cardboard rings for holding eggs.

"We've sold about a half-dozen of them at $5 each - mostly to antique lovers," says the 54-year-old owner.

Read, who worked in a Toledo hardware store as a child and became store manager there at 17, bought his Arlington store 12 years ago from B. W. Dewey, who founded it in 1938.

"When I got the store, almost everything in here was an antique," Read says. "We've had to update things, but we've kept a lot of the old things, too."

Read still sells potbelly stoves, old stovepipes and tracks for garage doors that slide open sideways.

He also has a 40-year-old floor-polishing machine that he rents out for $3.50 a day. "We were going to give it back to the Johnson Wax Company for their museum," Read says. "But they already had one, so we kept it."

At Arlington Hardware, 2920 Columbia Pike, you won't find old merchandise, but you will find something just as unusual: a Coca-Cola machine that sells Cokes for a dime.

David Eisen, the 72-year-old owner, went into the business 45 years ago when a neighbor who was a hardware wholesaler talked him into opening a shop. In the early years, when trolley cars chugged by the storefront, Eisen also carried toys and records. And Coke - for a dime a bottle.

But the toys and records went out with the trolleys. "You had to have somebody who knew about that stuff to sell it," Eisen says. "I still have a whole collection of classical albums at home that I never sold."

Now he sells hardware, housewares and some baskets. And Coke - for 10 cents a bottle, in the same machine he's always had. He can't change the price because the machine is so old the company has no parts to adjust it.

"I really shouldn't keep selling it," Eisen says, scratching his balding head. "These days it costs me 13 cents just for the Coke to put in it." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By John Pack.