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Why a trip through a local hardware store soothes my soul

Pink tools? There are such things, I assure you. Entrepreneurs come up with ideas like this because they think women need special pandering, a girlification of everything from car design to the layout of stores, as though our gender is some kind of handicap.

Sometimes, female-friendly design is welcome. But sometimes it's outright condescension. Imagine if women patronized men with attempts to make them comfortable with traditionally female tasks by customizing the process – and the products used – to suit their presumed male sensibilities.

Hey, I have an idea! Why not revolutionize dishwashing-liquid design? Forget pretty lavender liquid in plastic bottles with gentle curves reminiscent of the female form. Make the container rectangular and hipless with broader shoulders. Better yet, make it phallic-shaped. And call it Perfect Squirt. Surely, that'll encourage the dudes to wash the dishes.

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Please excuse me as I step off my soapbox. But I happened to go to my local hardware store the other day on a holiday ritual to buy new baking sheets for all those Christmas cookies I plan to bake and something to clean the oven before the bird messes it up again. I stepped through the door and fell in love with the old-school maleness of it, which made me think about how rare it is to find such a unique retail space.

Oh, I know that we're supposed to love all that is new and shiny and thinner or wider. And sure, change is good and constant. But in the desert of our homogenized consumer culture, a little Thoreauvian oasis of wilderness, of authenticity, is enough to give you faith in humanity.

Yet the home improvement/hardware category (worth $40-billion in Canada) is eagerly trying to fill the gap perceived to exist for female customers, many of them single heads of households and who, even when they're in a partnership, make 80 per cent of the family's domestic-purchasing decisions, according to Michael McLarney, editor and president of Hardlines Inc., a home-improvement information group, and managing director of the North American Retail Hardware Association.

That's why big-box stores such as Home Depot have widened their aisles – "Women don't like to be bumped up against other customers," McLarney explains – improved store lighting, lowered the sightlines (women apparently like to easily see what they're looking for without craning their necks), added more boutique-style houseware merchandise and run DIY "Jill of all Trades" workshops for women who want to know how to handle a power tool. "They've tried to make [hardware] stores not as daunting so that women don't feel as intimidated," he offers. Several tool manufacturers have introduced lighter-weight tools that are "ergonomically designed to be smaller for women's hands," explains Becky Yan, national account manager for Ryobi Power Tools Canada. (Ryobi packaging is not pink, she points out, but does include images of power-tool-wielding women.)

For all its efforts in customer service, however, the big-box store is mall culture, all bright and bushy-tailed and soulless. I prefer the Norman Rockwell scene I came upon up the street.

There's something about the neighbourhood hardware store in its unapologetic and quirky celebration of basic utility that's life-affirming. Once inside, you feel as though you've entered a private domain. The temperature is a little too warm. The shelves are full with an assortment of unrelated items, all neatly displayed. Where else in the world would you find a package of "2 non-stick eggs rings" next to one containing "500 ultimate icicles" for your Christmas tree? A radio plays, not some repeating CD of insipid holiday music. The acrid smell of the store suggests the basement workshop of your retro-style Dad, who wore cardigans and slippers on a Sunday afternoon and felt compelled to quietly fix things while your mother baked gingerbread in a kitchen with Formica countertops and avocado-coloured appliances.

Leaning halfway over the counter at the only cashier's desk, a middle-aged woman, dressed in casual clothes, her glasses perched on the end of her nose, was in an intense discussion with a salesman.

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"It doesn't work," she insisted pleasantly, holding out a fastening device for him to see.

"It goes like this, I believe," he replied calmly.

"Are you sure?" she wondered. He looked up at her and asked if he could take the annoying little thing from her to inspect it more closely. She agreed, and he solved the problem.

Over her shoulder, another customer, an elderly man in a Harris tweed trilby, winked at me in acknowledgment of the customer exchange we had witnessed.

"What you need is a good wire brush," a young salesman informed me about my oven-cleaning task with the authority of a doctor advising how to care for my health. I didn't even have to ask for his help. He offered it as he stood at attention beside the wall of kitchen-cleaning tools.

Out the door I sailed, feeling completely renewed, glad that the world, which often feels so out of kilter and broken, can be "fixed" by a hardware store visit – kind of funny, I know, but lovely, too. Sometimes, the only thing you need to make yourself feel better is not a sublime sales associate zipping you into an exquisite designer dress or fetching you the right size shoe but a pleasant guy handing you the perfect thing to get the crud off your oven door and, in the process, reminding you of the importance of community, in which people have the patient kindness to look after one another. No pink tools and bright, wide aisles needed, thank you.

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