As the front door opens, a bell jingles. The worn wood floor creaks with each customer’s footstep. An oily, metallic odor dominates M&M Hardware, a virtual paradise for the fix-it-yourself fool, on Detroit’s east side.
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and a few loyal patrons wait their turn. An elderly woman has a plumbing question. A large fellow leans on the counter before an antiquated cash register and asks for a receipt. My boyfriend Sean and I are here to pick up some nuts and bolts to repair his sister’s garage door.
Sean has been patronizing M&M Hardware for more than a decade. He’s used to the small-town way of this urban store, where a knowledgeable staff willingly explains how to install a garbage disposal, snake out a clogged bathtub drain or tackle tricky electrical problems. But today Sean is eager to get what he needs and get out.
I have been to the neighborhood hardware only a half-dozen times and am content to take in the scene, where laid-back clerks kibitz with customers and dole out Dum-Dum suckers to toddlers.
I peruse the packed, narrow isles. Metal buckets are filled with an assortment of nails. Small drawers hold screws, nuts and bolts. Various grades of sandpaper are stacked neatly on a shelf. It has the feel of a basement workshop, where your dad might drink a beer, listen to the radio and tinker.
A big-gutted man, who has a gold chain around his neck and looks to be in his early 50s, waits on us. He lets Sean behind the counter to hunt through the small drawers for the nuts and bolts he needs. When he has gathered a half-dozen or so sets, he asks, “How much?”
The burly fellow ponders the question and answers, “A dollar.”
It’s the M&M way. You ask how much, the clerk pauses before deciding on a price — which always seems to come to a round number.
The first time I patronized the shop about two years ago, I picked up some items to remove wallpaper. When I asked how much for them, the two clerks looked at each other, shrugged and said, “$12.”
On a recent trip to the store, I met the owner, Brian Rouleau, who purchased M&M Hardware in 1976 from two brothers, Gene and Les McDonald (hence the M&M). Rouleau is as solid as the hardware he sells. He graduated from Finney High School in 1968, married his high-school sweetheart four years later, bought the store four years after that, and lived in the shop’s rear apartment until the couple had their third baby, who is headed to college next fall.
Rouleau figured that self-employment was the best route for someone who is legally blind.
“It’s not like I could go to the Big Three and get a job in a factory and pass the physical,” he says.
Rouleau’s eyesight was damaged at birth from a lack of oxygen. But it didn’t stop him from becoming an ardent reader; he peruses newspapers by holding them about an inch from his face.
If the gentle fellow had his way, he would have been a journalist. When in high school, he worked three years for the Detroit Free Press, reporting the final scores of every basketball and football game in the city.
“That was a treat,” recalls Rouleau. But he couldn’t write fast enough because of his poor vision and let go of his dream.
Now, Rouleau is deciding whether to let go of the small respite he carved out for himself and his customers on the corner of East Warren and Woodhall. For years the hardware store, which specializes in plumbing and cement, thrived.
“We sold enough cement to sink the city,” says Rouleau.
In 1992, the defunct magazine Detroit Monthly awarded him with the title “Best Hardware in Detroit,” which is still posted outside the store.
But in the past six years he has gone deeper into debt, as consumers turn to the giant home improvement centers.
“We have a lot of loyal customers, but not enough. The bottom line is that the community doesn’t support small businesses,” says Rouleau. “I’m not just talking about hardware stores.”
The old-school entrepreneur walks out his front door and points at some struggling businesses along East Warren.
“We’re all doing bits and pieces, but we’re losing ground,” he says.
Rouleau, who puts in 70-hour work weeks, hasn’t decided whether to call it quits. “I’m so perplexed,” he says. “I get excited thinking of what could be and get depressed thinking of getting further in debt.”
If he closes, he and his local gem surely will be missed by loyal fans like Kathy Wendler, who has been shopping here for 20 years.
Though she moved out of the immediate area years ago, she makes the seven-mile trip to M&M Hardware. Wendler understands the value of a neighborhood store. She heads the Southwest Detroit Business Association, a nonprofit that helps support local businesses on the other side of the city.
“I love this place,” says Wendler, who stands in line behind Sean and me. “They’ll fix anything, as long as you can get it here.”
I ask whether she has noticed the charming way the store clerks decide what to charge customers. As she considers this, the stocky fellow with the gold chain calls her to the counter. Another clerk, wearing a black fedora, retrieves a dresser drawer they’ve repaired for Wendler.
“How much?” she asks.
The clerks look at each other before the husky one declares: “$10.”
Wendler smiles at me and heads out the door. The bell jingles.Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at [email protected]mes.com