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Life lessons learned in Smithfield’s hardware stores

EDITOR’S NOTE: Columnist John Edwards is taking a break this week. The following Short Rows was first published on Feb. 16, 2000. Winn Hardware has since closed and the Main Street building that housed it is now home to the Isle of Wight Visitors Center and Isle of Wight Arts League.

I just love poking around in a good hardware store, and we’re fortunate in having several of them right here in Smithfield.

Saturday, I dropped by Winn Hardware and was looking at the addition Fred and Edith are adding to their store. It will house Edith’s garden shop, and will give Fred more room to display hardware in the existing building. I rarely go in the place that I don’t get a bit nostalgic, because some of the best education I ever received (second to growing up on a farm) was working there over 35 years ago when the store was Bell hardware.

W.I. “Wookie” Bell began his career in what was known as Moody’s Store, located right on the Pagan River at the foot of Main Street. Wookie bought the business from Mr. Moody and ran it for years on the wharf before building the brick structure which now houses Winn’s.

I liked Bell Hardware best when it was on the wharf. The old frame building, with exposed beams and pine floor, smelled like a proper hardware store. Wookie supplied the then numerous watermen of the area with everything from “gum” boots to wooden baling scoops, oar locks and old-fashioned galvanized boat pumps. He had coil upon coil of manila rope, gill nets and a host of other items.

Wookie eventually relocated because the building so often flooded. Any good nor’easter would bring water into the place, and whenever the talk turned to high tides, Wookie would point with pride to the shoulder-high mark on a support post which was notched at the level of the highest tide of the century, in August 1933.

Whenever a high tide threatened, friends of Wookie would gather and help him haul hardware upstairs to a large second floor storage room. There it would remain until the threat of flooding passed.

Wookie hired me in 1963 while I was still in high school, and taught me a love of hardware that has never diminished. He carried me to hardware shows, allowed me to order new merchandise (never over-order was his absolute rule) and even let me run the store once while he took a few days off.

Knowing how to thread pipe or cut glass isn’t critical to living in the year 2000, but that type of knowledge has made me a lot more independent than I would have been without it.

Young people need to learn how to do things for themselves, and nowhere can they learn more about the tools for doing things than in a hardware store. That’s why it’s good to see the Winns and Bob Little both hiring so many young people to work in their stores. They’re getting the education of a lifetime, whether they realize it right now or not.

It’s a tradition Wookie Bell would undoubtedly be proud to see continuing.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.