Friday, March 25, 2022

Honest Things

Eleanor Clark, on the Oysterman's Cooperative building in Brittany, where "there is just about everything there you could ever need in oystering, from women's dark blue canvas pants and the beautiful fishermen's blouses up to the heaviest cable":
A lovely store, in which nothing has been advertised, nothing is packaged, no patronage is solicited, no brainwashing is done, no profit is to be made and therefore it is most unlikely that anything bought will break or otherwise go to pieces the first time it is used. Oh, the long-lost delight of this decency! For the general American public there is nothing left that begins to approach it but the small-town hardware store, where a nail is still a nail and had better be a good one, and there is apt to be a good deal of junk and vanity even there. Besides, in this place with its crude heavy counters and air of a warehouse, the aura of the single trade, of the beau métier with all its sea-depths and adventure, hangs around every item, for not a bolt or rope or pair of gloves there is meant for any other purpose, and it is remarkable what beauty it casts over everything. Beauty depends after all on what you come from, what you are being cleansed and relieved of, and in the pass we are in nowadays an American lady of the buying type might be tempted to come away from this place with a batch of pulleys, the way her grandmother acquired a little replica of the Venus de Milo.

But no, that wouldn't do, would it? The beauty of all these honest things, aside from their fine conjunction of textures, is in their being together and being there, not somewhere else, in the above-mentioned association, in the simple appropriateness of it all. It is not to be bought; the poor lady will have to go back to the square, with its tasteless souvenirs.
Clark was writing in the early 1960s, and no doubt many things are different now. Except for The Oysters of Locmariaquer and Rome and a Villa, her books seem to have gone out of print. She moved in Trotskyite circles for a time and apparently knew the man himself, if briefly, in his Mexican years; later she married Robert Penn Warren. The Vassar Encyclopedia has what seems to be the best summary of her life and work.


Michael Leddy said...

What a great passage.

We once visited Harvey’s Hardware (Needham, MA) while on vacation, having read about the store’s incredible density. No pulleys for us, but we did buy WD-40 and floor wax. Hardware stores are the only stores in which I think about the merchandise as (awful word) curated, where anything on the shelves is going to be good.

Chris said...

We still go to an independent hardware store that's been in business since the late 19th century (I think). It's gone through two changes of owners in recent years and spiffed itself up a bit to attract a more upscale clientele, but it still has echoes of the old days and some of the same fixtures. It also had caged parrots until recently, but I think they're gone now.