He looked at the long line of folks debating Thickened Cream or Polished Pearl for their newly neutral dream bathrooms, eggshell or satin for their dining rooms, and exhaled.
“It’s not slowing down. At all,” he lamented.
Homebound home improvement is all the rage. What else to do when you’re stuck at home?
I’m totally guilty. After Christmas visitors laid bare the shameful state of the second bathroom in our house, we ripped out the hideous blue fiberglass shower insert in January and began the tiling project that would never end.
I’d be lying if I didn’t cheer just a tiny bit inside when we were all ordered to stay home. Maybe the bathroom will be finished! (Four people, including two teens, sharing one shower is not nice.)
We had slowly acquired all the materials well before the coronavirus crisis, but, of course, no project shopping is ever finished. So we’ve ended up at a hardware store for bits and bobs we forgot over the past couple of weeks.
Whoa. So this is where everyone is.
The vociferous debate about what is essential — as Americans are urged to stay at home unless they’re doing essential business — is playing out here.
Lowe’s chief executive Marvin Ellison said the company’s numbers are proving where a lot of Americans stand on this debate.
“As customers are sheltering in place, they’re looking at that deferred list of home projects,” he said in an interview on CNBC. “As they spend time around the home, they now have more time on their hands to tackle some of those things.”
It’s a mixed bag for hardware-store workers.
They seemed beleaguered and exhausted when I talked to them.
“Everyone wants to fix everything now,” said one cashier at a Maryland hardware store as we tried to communicate around a new shield to protect her.
“But they just hired me because they needed more help. So that’s good,” she said.
As America’s newly unemployed surged to 17 million, an industry that’s thriving feels like good news.
Parking lots at the big-box stores are packed. Fruit trees and giant box freezers have joined masks and Clorox as hot items for the 2020 apocalypse.
After complaints, some of the big-box stores began supplying employees with safety gear and hazard pay. Above the edge of their masks, you can see the fear in the eyes of some workers amid the customer onslaught.
I talked to a woman whose cart was piled high with trellis pieces and plants for a garden project she’s always wanted to tackle.
A man with whom I chatted was finally fixing parts of the deck that’s been rotting away.
Outside that Maryland Home Depot last week, the line — everyone spaced six feet apart — snaked all the way along the building and around the corner as employees let people in one by one, keeping a limit to the shoppers inside.
I was thrilled that my favorite hardware store in the world — Frager’s Hardware on Capitol Hill — was open and had the toilet flapper we needed last week. They also had toilet paper behind the counter, speakeasy style.
Employees there have safety equipment and are getting bonus pay and lunch delivered, and managers decide how to limit the number of customers at the store, said Gina Schaefer, who owns Frager’s and 12 other hardware stores in the Ace Hardware Cooperative called A Few Cool Hardware Stores.
Business has been up in some of her stores and down in others. But she’s reluctant to crow about the health of the enterprise “when so many other local friends are out of business.”
They’re seeing a mix of folks coming in for emergency fix-its and those honey-do lists. “Some people have spouses out of work, so they’re taking time to do these projects.”
Their garden centers are thriving thanks to people doing their usual spring planting, but also to new gardeners who want to grow their own herbs and vegetables.
“Being out there can be a beautiful, emotional thing,” Schaefer said.
Predictably, there’s a social media hate fest from folks who don’t see mulch and tile as essential shopping. (But flour and eggs for sourdough peasant loaf and macaroon experiments are okay? Puhleez.)
Think of some of these projects as essential for the mind. I’m thankful for every day that my husband chooses tile over alcohol to get his anxiety out after a frustrating workday. I am grateful for a planter and some soil when I need to stop a spiral of despair.
Bob, keep building. Just wear a mask and gloves when you’re honey-doing, kay?
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