Customers visiting Nichols Hardware can park in the lot in front of the store warehouse that sits next to the main store. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Columnist

From the handwritten receipts to the tin ceilings and worn wooden floors, Nichols Hardware — opened in this small Virginia town in 1914 and still open today, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — oozes nostalgia.

And that can be a dangerous thing. Because those good old days weren’t so good for many people.

Lynchings were still occurring in the Virginia Piedmont region when the store opened. Women couldn’t vote. Anyone suspected of being gay was regularly fired, arrested, jailed and prosecuted. Ten percent of all babies died in their first year of life, and the average life expectancy was just 54 years. Workplace deaths were common, and there was “virtually no regulation, no insurance, and no company fear of a lawsuit when someone was injured or killed” on the job, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on what those days were like 100 years ago.

Still feeling nostalgic?

It can be easy to forget the brutality and cruelty of those old-timey days when we wrap ourselves in a chalk-painted, custom-distressed longing for mason-jar lemonade and a simpler, kinder time that never really was.


Nichols Hardware in Purcellville. (Nancy Feeney)

One of the employees of the Loudoun County hardware store gave the nation a disturbing reminder of that over the weekend when an aspiring Eagle Scout looking for donations at the store for a project was served up a bygone-era rant about “homos” and co-ed scouting, then “thrown out” of the store, according to the boy’s father.

Oops, not really the charming, small-town feel that Nichols was after.

The employee was reacting to recent news that the Boy Scouts of America now welcome girls, that the organization has changed its name to Scouts BSA and that three years ago, it lifted a ban on all gay members and leaders.

How easily the man forgot the other times the Boy Scouts of America made news, such as when a court ordered the organization in 2012 to release about 2,000 pages of sex abuse reports from its “perversion files,” created in the 1920s in the Scouts’ halfhearted hunt for child abusers preying on boys.

The stories, interviews and incidents were stomach-churning. Some of the reports were even written in the boys’ own awkward handwriting. The most consistent part of the reports was the coverup. Parents, kids, leaders all hush-hushing the abuse and moving the abusers along — quietly, Catholic Church-style — to the next group of victims.

After making national news when the scouting outburst went viral, the hardware store — to its credit — fired the employee.

“That wouldn’t have happened if I had been here that day, I’ll tell you that,” one of the store employees told me this week.

And with the termination, the Nichols family firmly reminded folks of how far we’ve come and how absurd it is to gloss over the ugliest pieces of our past.

Historian Stephanie Coontz wrote a book debunking our mythology about the past. The title: “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.”

“Knowing there was no golden age of family life, I believed, would enable people to deal more effectively with the problems facing today’s families than if they continued to romanticize the ‘good old days,’ ” she wrote.

Coontz reminded readers that in those romanticized days, half of all mills and factories were filled with child workers, when kids as young as 6 pulled 12-hour shifts. Colonial families were rarely nuclear, as most kids experienced the death of at least one parent. And then there are the white folks who have fond memories of childhoods filled with warm and nurturing black women who had to leave their own children behind to care for them.

Across the street from Nichols is a delightful antique store with some gorgeous pieces of furniture dating back to the 1700s. The place celebrates everything about the past.

“It’s the workmanship, that’s something you can’t find everywhere today,” said Mary Ellen Stover, the shop’s owner.

Stover is in her 70s, but doesn’t want to date herself as accurately as she dates her pieces. She has lived in the region most of her life and has raised five children, owned a business and even backpacked through Thailand in recent years.

But she’s definitely into nostalgia, remembering the past as better than the present. I asked her whether there was anything bad about the past.

“Hmm. I’ll have to think about that. It’ll take me some time,” she said.

Minutes later, she was still thinking. We talked about the lovely little merry-go-round in the store and a beautiful hutch in the corner.

“Oh, I know. I think women, maybe, weren’t as respected as much back then,” she said.

Yeah. A little.

There it is, the ability to forget how great America is while longing to make it somehow great again.

The whole concept of contemporary Purcellville plays on that old-time charm.

One of the prominent stores on Main Street — a vintage clothing boutique — is even called “Nostalgia.”

The quaint distilleries and antique bric-a-brac shops draw hundreds of urban refugees each weekend.

What couldn’t happen in those allegedly romantic times?

A black man couldn’t shop at many stores, let alone serve as the town’s mayor — no, three-term mayor — the way Purcellville Mayor Kwasi Fraser, an immigrant from Guyana, has.

868 Estate Vineyards couldn’t tout itself as friendly to LGBT weddings.

There would be no LGBT weddings.

There would be no wine.

And taking a walk to the Nostalgia boutique would be quite gross, because Main Street was known as Polecat Hollow, an unpaved byway for animal waste.

Not too charming, right?

Twitter: @petulad