Sister’s Community Hardware
by Daniel Elder
His name was Abraham. I think. If I’m being honest, I don’t really remember his name, though everything else about him sticks in my memory like a plastic bag stuck in a tree’s branches. We met exactly four times. I hired him to build some shelves in my old Brooklyn apartment.
I moved into a three-hundred square foot studio at the corner of Fulton Street and Classon Avenue in spring of 2010. It was a cozy rectangle with a little kitchen sticking off one end, and two windows along one of the shorter walls that looked out on Fulton Street, facing south, getting lots of sun. After years of living with roommates, this was a place all my own. All my bedrooms in those shared spaces had always felt temporary, as if I were just sticking things where they landed because I had nowhere better to put them. But the apartment at 1061 Fulton became my home. It felt right. It fit.
At work, my colleague Andy and I had recently moved into a new, small workspace just over the Mercury Lounge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Andy bought a turntable for the office and brought in a rotating selection from his personal vinyl stash every day for us to listen to. I had vague memories of the turntable in the Queens apartment of my upbringing spinning now and then, but this was my first hands-on experience with vinyl in a couple decades. I knew when I moved into 1061 Fulton that I was going to want to build a collection of my own.
My old coffee table, which had lived in the common areas of my last two apartments, fit perfectly into an indentation along the wall by the window that opened out over what I thought of as the living room portion of the studio. I placed my new turntable on the left half of the coffee table, and on the right half I placed the Technics amplifier, Panasonic receiver, and Polk speakers that had been gifted to me by three of New York City’s finest sound engineers, guys who worked at the Mercury Lounge, Bowery Ballroom, and Music Hall of Williamsburg, clubs for which I did bookkeeping at the time. All the equipment they gave me was in prime condition, from the 1980’s, with wood-paneling and actual tubes inside of them. I didn’t know a thing about audio technology, but I had an audiophile’s setup.
I only owned about thirty records to begin with, and half of those had been scavenged from my mother’s apartment in Jackson Heights. The records stood up between the ends of the receiver and amp and the wall just beyond them. The table was crowded. It was clear that soon I would need some sort of shelving.
I paced back and forth, listening to the same records over and over; new pressings like Yeasayer’s All Hour Cymbals and scratchy old classics like my mom’s copy of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. I didn’t have to worry what anyone else might want or not want to listen to. The other important addition to my life and my apartment paced with me: a curious, skittish tabby named Terence. I scooped him up into my arms, kissed his face, and then it hit me.
I had a vision: a shelf halfway up the wall above the coffee table, stretching the length of the indentation, filled with records. And two small shelves on either side of the window for the Polk speakers to sit on, so that music could pour out into the whole apartment. I would build the shelves myself. I’d never built anything, but I would go to the hardware store, and I would buy the supplies: wood, hammer, nails…and whatever else it was that I needed. That was all, right? The process would be part of this new chapter of my life in which I was on my own, learning about self-reliance, learning to do new things.
Every day on my way to work I saw, caddy-corner from the Clinton-Washington subway entrance, the façade of Sister’s Community Hardware. This neighborhood was undergoing a wave of transformation, of which I was obviously a part, but Sister’s was an old neighborhood stalwart. I hadn’t visited it yet. As a rule, I tend to avoid hardware stores. They make me feel profoundly ignorant and overwhelmed. The idea that there are people who walk into them and know the applications of everything to be found on their shelves is quite frankly astounding to me.
It was a muggy day in late July when I finally set foot inside Sister’s. Seventies soul music was playing and high up on the walls, ringing the entire store, were colorful paintings of famous figures from African-American history. A mix of white and black customers wandered the store, tended to by an all black staff. I wandered the aisles, looking at all the tools, which to me were really just doohickeys and knick-knacks.
There was no shame in asking for help, so I dawdled by the counter, waiting for an employee to be free. One of them, an older gentleman in a Kangol hat and wearing bifocals that rested near the tip of his nose, rang up an old woman’s purchases of plumbing supplies. I watched her and wondered if she was going to repair her plumbing herself. If my toilet sprang a leak, the most I knew how to do was dial my landlord’s number on my cell phone.
Finally, he was done ringing her up. He filed away a receipt and then turned to look at me. His eyebrows seemed permanently lifted towards an apex in his forehead, which bunched up in thick rolls of dark brown skin.
“Can I help you.”
He was like a walking sigh.
“I want to build these three shelves in my apartment. One big one for my records, two small ones for my speakers.”
I put a piece of paper down on the counter. It had the dimensions of the shelves, which I had worked out with the aid of a tape measure. He looked down through his glasses at the paper, then back up at me.
“All right. So what do you need. You got the wood?”
“No, not yet. I need everything, basically.”
He looked at me. It wasn’t a searching sort of look. Rather, it was clear that he saw the truth and needed to look no further. He saw me for exactly what I was: the skinny, brainy child of bookish intellectuals, someone for whom the hammer, a precision instrument crafted and fine-tuned through millennia, was little more than a crude bludgeon that one prayed didn’t destroy one’s fingers.
“I could build ‘em for you.”
It didn’t come across as a suggestion or an offer so much as it did an accusation. As if that’s what I wanted all along.
“Okay,” I stammered.
“All right, then. When’s good?”
“Friday night. Around seven. Write down your address. Cost you sixty bucks plus the supplies.”
I added my address to the sheet of paper with the dimensions.
“You have any tools, or do I need to bring everything.” My face gave away the answer. “O-kay. I’ll bring my bag.”
“Okay. Thank you. See you Friday.”
He pursed his lips and moved on to the next customer, murmuring as he walked past me. “All right, then.”
That Friday night a little after seven the doorbell rang. This was the last time Terence ever reacted to a doorbell only with curiosity, and no fear. I hadn’t had many visitors in the month or so since I’d adopted him. When I opened the door to let Abraham in, Terence watched from under my desk across the apartment, nose twitching. Abraham lumbered in with a huge black duffel bag under one arm and a long plank of wood under the other. He gestured with his chin over his shoulder to just outside the door where I had multiple pairs of shoes sitting in a row.
“You want me to take my shoes off.”
What I wanted was to learn how to ask a question without actually sounding like it was a question. Shoes in my apartment was one of my big pet peeves, but I heard myself say, “No, that’s okay.”
He grunted. He was so damn irascible. I loved him for it.
Terence scampered onto my bed and sat down in the farthest corner, watching with skeptical curiosity as Abraham set down his bag and the plank of wood and looked around the apartment with his hands on his hips. He wasn’t looking for where the shelf would go, that was clear. He was just looking at all of my stuff, giving the place a thorough and unabashed once-over, an appraisal. Then he knelt down and began pulling supplies out of his duffel bag.
“You want the shelf right there, over the stereo.”
“Yes, exactly, that would be great. Can I get you something? Water? Beer?”
He paused while rummaging through his stuff, then shook his head. “Water.”
I poured him a glass, and then laid a sheet down over the stereo equipment to keep them free from any dust. I lifted my meager record collection and moved them over to my writing desk. Abraham pulled out a few metal L-shaped pieces, nails, a hammer. He inspected the wall where I wanted the shelf installed, knocking on it, a maneuver I’d seen different handy people utilize throughout the years, something that seemed as mysterious to me as what nuances a doctor might be listening for when sucking the sounds of a heartbeat up through a stethoscope.
“Okay. I’ll use some of these braces, shouldn’t take too long at all.”
The moment he commenced hammering into the wall, Terence scrambled for dear life to get under the covers. He lay there cowering. When I reached under to comfort him, he trembled against my hand. Meanwhile Abraham grumbled while dealing with the wall. It was being stubborn about holding things in place, and he muttered to himself.
I wasn’t sure if he wanted conversation, or, if he did, what I could possibly talk to him about. He broke the silence first, though, while standing up and taking a break with his water. He thumbed through my records where I’d placed them.
“Vinyl records, huh. I didn’t even know they still made these, let alone people buying ‘em.”
I moved across the room to look through the records with him, but as soon as I got near, he got back to working on the shelf. Silence hung in the air between us, along with the sounds of his work. He hammered three braces into the wall and then pulled out a drill, buzzing through the wood plank he’d brought for the record shelf in three places and screwing it into the braces. He did the same on either side of the window with one brace and one piece each of the smaller planks of wood—each slightly bigger than the speakers they were meant to hold.
I gave him eighty bucks plus the cost of supplies.
“I told you it’s sixty.”
“I know. It looks great. Thank you.”
“All right, then.”
Over the next few weeks, with more space to store them, my record-buying budget flew out of control. My collection was like The Blob—getting bigger and bigger. I noticed that the shelf seemed to be sagging a little, but it didn’t seem to be doing so to a degree that should cause me concern. I kept adding to it, until it was maybe two-thirds full.
In the middle of a sweltering night, I woke up to a loud crash and a frightened cat clinging desperately to my chest. Terence scurried under the covers as I got out of them and walked over to where moonlight shone through the window down onto the stereo. I switched on the overhead light.
My entire vinyl collection lay splayed across the floor. Two of the braces had collapsed under the weight of the records, and the wooden shelf barely held on to the third, but luckily it hadn’t fallen down onto the stereo. Records were everywhere, and some of the discs had even flown out of their sleeves and across the floor. Terence, emboldened by my fearlessness, joined the investigation. He sniffed at the spilled sonic archive. Then he lay down atop a copy of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and began preening himself with delight.
I walked into Sister’s Community Hardware the next day and loitered for a while until Abraham was done helping a customer.
“Holdin’ up all right?”
Something in his tone told me he had an idea it wasn’t. “It collapsed last night. Records everywhere.”
He grunted, nodding, stroking his silver stubble. “All right, then. I’ll fix it.”
He said it begrudgingly, but not, it seemed, because he didn’t think he should have to fix it. On the contrary, I think he thought it was the right thing to do, but he just couldn’t stand to come across as nice. He had to couch his kindness in grump. It was his schtick.
“We’re gonna have to try something different this time. Take down my phone number, and when you go home I need you to measure from the ground to where we had the shelf in, then send me that. I’m gonna bring some more wood, build some support.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, a defensive edge to his tone. “I ain’t gonna charge you. I know it’s my fault. I’ll come by on Tuesday.”
“All right, then.”
When the doorbell rang Tuesday, Terence responded with what was, for him, now his Pavlovian response to the sound of it. Ever since Abraham had come over and hammered for an hour and a half, the cat had taken to scrambling like a bat out of hell to hide under the bedcovers anytime the doorbell rang. Food deliveries were now the end of the world.
It took Abraham a little while longer to get up the stairs, and when I opened the door, he was carrying a power saw in addition to all his other supplies.
“Are you gonna do that out in the hall?”
He walked in and set the saw down in the center of the living area and began setting up a workstation.
“Nope, right here.”
After he got everything set up, he drank water while looking through my newly swollen collection of records, which were stacked in a corner. He pulled out a Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings record and asked if we could hear it while he worked.
The drill made a lot of noise, but he didn’t have to use it very long and we only missed hearing the first half of Sharon’s cover of Shuggie Otis’ “Inspiration Information.” He moved the wood against the saw’s blade decisively. I watched everything he did with no idea how it came so easily to him. I could do math in my mind like mental gymnastics but once exterior objects and hands were involved, I was lost.
On either side of my coffee table, on either side of the indent of the wall into which it fit so snugly, Abraham placed a plank of wood running from the floor up to the level where we wanted the shelf to sit. He hammered these into the wall at two different points, and then nailed the shelf into them from above. Then he drilled just one of the L-brackets back into place and secured the shelf to that as well. He tugged and pushed on the shelf and nodded. It was much sturdier now.
“I brought you some stain.”
He took out a small bottle of dark wood polish. The wood I’d bought for the shelf and the wood he’d brought to buttress it were all light in color, but all the rest of my furniture was dark wood. He explained that he’d help me stain the shelf and then leave the can with me—it was already half-used—and I could stain the buttresses if I wanted.
“So you play Scrabble,” he asked while brushing the dark polish on the shelf with tender attention. The question came across like the offer to build the shelves in the first place—like an accusation, like I was forcing him to say it.
“I do.” I figured he had noticed my copy of the game sitting on my desk. “I had friends over last night and we played.”
“I’m in a Scrabble Club. We been goin’ ten years now. Some real strong players. You any good.”
“I’m pretty good, yeah.”
“Know all the two-letter words.”
“Most of them.”
“Scrabble is a smart game. It’s a math game, under the cover of bein’ a word game. Lotta people don’t understand that.”
“Yeah, most people focus too much on making fancy words instead of playing the board.”
“I can stain the underside if you want.”
He screwed the cap back on the can of stain and handed it to me along with the brush he had used to apply it. He sighed.
“All right, then. Listen, if you wanna write a review on Yelp for Sister’s, I’d appreciate it. Just don’t mention me by name, don’t mention that I came here and did this, I’m really not supposed to. But if you could write something nice about Sister’s, they’d appreciate it.”
“Okay, sure. Definitely.”
While he packed up his stuff, I looked at the new and improved shelf. It was beautiful. In the way it framed the record player and stereo equipment beneath it, it looked like the archway entrance to a Japanese temple’s grounds. I couldn’t wait to put my records back on top of it, once the stain had dried.
Abraham stood up with his duffel bag and table saw. I didn’t offer him any extra money, and he didn’t offer to clean the sawdust he’d left everywhere.
“Well,” he said, “you got my number. If you wanna join up for some Scrabble sometime, you know where to find me.”
“Cool,” I replied. It was the last thing I had ever expected him to say. He liked me and he couldn’t stand it.
“All right, then.” He looked in the direction of the bed, where a lump under the comforter was visibly shivering. “Later, cat.”
It wasn’t long before I had too many records for the shelf to even hold. I had to take my lumps and do the inevitable—schlep to IKEA in Red Hook and pick up an EXPEDIT shelving unit, the cheap darling of record collectors everywhere. Once I had that set up, it seemed silly to have just a few records hanging out on the shelf above the stereo.
Instead, the shelf wound up becoming something I’d always wanted in all my previous rooms, but never had. It became an altar, a repository for various objects that came into my life—tchotchkes, totems, talismans. Objects dripping with memory. They were gentle objects, and lightweight, too: feathers, bones, crystals, coins, amulets, and drawings. A silver cup a friend dug up in their yard that was inscribed with the kiddush in Hebrew. Two small wooden statues of elegant hands. A picture of my dead friend, Margaret.
The shelf was far stronger than it needed to be to hold all these simple things.
I never did write that Yelp review for Sister’s Community Hardware. And when my toilet did one day erupt, I didn’t run to them for supplies and advice—I called my landlord instead. One morning, walking to the subway to go to work, I saw from across the street that the store’s windows looked to be covered in paper. When I got home to the neighborhood that night, I walked over and took a look. Sister’s had gone out of business. It had been in the neighborhood for a decade before I moved in. And now it was gone.
Not long after, it was my turn to go. I’d lived my entire life in New York City and had come to a crossroads. I had grown up in Queens, gone to school in Manhattan, lived in the East Village, then the Lower East Side, then Park Slope, and finally there at 1061 Fulton on the border between Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy, chased from one corner of the city to another by rising rents. I’d long felt a calling to move to the Pacific Northwest and it was either that or move even deeper into Brooklyn, or, heaven forfend, up to the Bronx.
By then, the old Sister’s space had been purchased by a successful Brooklyn restaurateur who had transformed it into a shi-shi dining experience. He kept the Sister’s name as an homage. When I walked by and looked inside at night, the decor of expensive wood and exposed filament light bulbs and the thirty-dollar entrées on the menu seemed to epitomize everything that had changed so drastically about the neighborhood in my six years of living there.
Sam’s, the last bodega in the neighborhood with a bullet-proof window for late night purchases, had recently closed down. They reopened a couple months later rebranded as Sam’s Organic, fully now what a friend would call a bouge-dega, with no more late night transactions through glass and lots of overpriced coconut water. The Outpost Cafe, proudly queer owned and operated, had once been the lone coffee-slinger in the area; now it had four or five fancy coffee competitors in as many blocks catering to the stroller crowd. And the Pleasant Stay Motel, a pay-by-the-hour joint around the corner from my apartment with a seedy clientele, had now shut down for good. Not that I had ever patronized it. But it added a lot of flavor to the block.
Packing up was an emotional experience. This had been home. Terence sniffed about the boxes as I either threw things away or packed them for storage or for the move. Taking apart the apartment was like an experiment in unpeeling my identity, examining the ways I had grown in the last six years, grown into this place which was the most home-like home I’d ever known since leaving my mom’s apartment at age eighteen. I couldn’t help but wonder who I’d be the next time I unpacked, how I would see myself reflected on the walls around me.
Eventually the apartment was empty of my stuff, except for three things: the record shelf and the two small speaker shelves. They looked like they belonged exactly where they were. I waited until my landlord came by to inspect the space, and asked him if he wanted me to take them down, since they hadn’t come with the apartment. He walked across the empty room and checked them out, tugging to test their sturdiness, nodding.
“Nah,” he said, in his laconic Trinidadian accent. “You can leave ‘em.”
Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Oregon home. His writing has appeared in Nailed Magazine, Ghost City Review, The Manifest Station, and Origins Journal. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence; they’re currently at work on a book-length work of non-fiction.