I bug Richie Crabb for about a week to talk to me about his hardware store for my "blog." I'd assumed it would be easy: I'd take a few pictures, scrawl out a few stories, and be out of his hair in twenty minutes tops. But every time I come in he's shooting the shit with somebody else and I don't want to interrupt. As I wait for him, lingering in the aisles and watching the employees helping customers I realize that Busy Bee Hardware on the corner of Gratiot and Russell in Detroit really is busy. I've always felt like I was the only customer there, but only because that's how they've always treated me. A steady stream of customers comes in and each of them gets the same friendly treatment. That conversation about fishing started because someone had a question about halogen light bulbs. The guy who needed some rope thimbles ends up talking about his dogs. Conversation is more the nuts and bolts of hardware retail than actual nuts and bolts. The hardware salesman must help solve problems he cannot see; he is a handyman of hypotheses; a surgeon who diagnoses from a distance, sells you the right scalpel and sends you on your way. The hardware salesman translates your need for a thingamadoodle or a whatsamajigger into something you carry away in a brown paper bag; and if you are a professional he must speak your jargon too.
This is why mom & pop hardware stores have the appeal that they do. It's just not the same asking some guy in an orange smock how to snake a drain that your kid shoved his toothbrush down. I once had an associate at Lowe's claim he couldn't tell me whether the 6#16 to 2#10 gauge wire connectors in my hand were the right size for a simple rewiring project. "If your house burns down, you might sue," he told me before I walked out frustrated and empty-handed. At Busy Bee, our neighborhood hardware store, that would never happen. There are two knowledgeable and helpful employees on the floor (neither is related to the owners but that doesn't mean they aren't family: Ted has been with them for fourteen years and Roy's been there since 1984). Ted once walked me through a hack to rewire a light switch so my formerly outlet-only pendant lamp would be properly grounded, and he's never once mentioned concern about litigation.
While I wait with my notebook, Roy opens the door for a man in a wheelchair who needs a key made. An elderly woman needs a new rubber stopper for one leg of her walker (75 cents) and Ted treats her like she's a Hollywood starlet in a Rodeo Drive boutique. She puts down a few more dollars in layaway towards the crock pot they're holding for her behind the counter. Another woman comes in to exchange some jigsaw puzzles from the big pile right by the door. These people know and care about their customers. Some regulars remember shopping there with parents and grandparents, and many have fond memories of the owners' parents who ran the store before them. Busy Bee is a bulwark against the forces threatening to destroy this community. It is a place where everyone who walks in the door is treated with the respect that a human being deserves.
Sandy Novak, Richie's "much younger" sister, is a natural storyteller and the store historian. She tells me Busy Bee traces its origins to 1918, when Julian Berkovitz opened a mercantile to cater to the farmers bringing their goods to sell in Eastern Market, recognizing that many of them stayed overnight in nearby hotels and most of them had wads of cash from their market sales. Busy Bee helped them lighten their wallets and fill their empty wagons with the things they needed: hardware, appliances, tools, housewares, toys, tack and harnesses (they even outfitted the Detroit Police Department's mounted patrol). When the Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town, they would visit Busy Bee for repairs, giving rise to the store's motto (still printed on stationary today): Everything from a mouse trap. . . to a tame elephant. Detroit's own Ferry Seed Co. supplied seeds for the farmers. The original seed counter and signage are there today, and the store still sells seeds and a complete line of gardening and canning supplies to Detroit's urban farmers and growers:
Sandy shows me a photo of the interior from 1924. The floorboards are the same, creaky and faded now after nearly a century of wear. The ceiling above us today is the same ceiling above her grandfather Herbert Crabb, the man who befriended Berkovitz's son-in-law in the trenches of World War I and came back to work in his store. Herbert's son Raymond and his wife Gwendolyn (Sandy and Richie's parents) took over the business in the 1940s and ran it until the eighties.
In the 1960s, the neighborhood of houses south of the store was torn down in the fit of urban renewal that built the apartments buildings and townhouses in our neighborhood today. "People in apartments don't need hardware stores like people who own houses," Sandy says, but the business made it through Detroit's most turbulent years because of her father's astute decision to buy the old washtub factory across the street and use it to store rock salt to supply regional businesses during the winter months. Every August, thirty-five semi truck loads of salt were delivered to the warehouse along with ten trucks of calcium chloride, and that supply would turn over 2-3 times every winter. Sandy estimates that on a good year they'd sell 135 semi trucks worth, and that's how rock salt saved their store. "It's awful to say, but the worse a winter was, the better we'd do." For decades, Busy Bee was one of the major salt wholesalers and retailers in southeast Michigan.
Richie Crabb has a bad back that bore more than a few 50-lb bags of salt in its day. He grew up in this store, and in the 1980s he took it over with his sister, the third generation of their family to run it, and you can find him there nearly every day, usually watching over the store from his seat above the giant chest of drawers filled with hose clamps and casters and couplings, surrounded by order forms, inventory lists, Matryoshka school photos of his two sons, a 386-IBM with a dysfunctional dot-matrix printer. He fills out forms the old-fashioned way: by hand. Whenever I walk in the door with my kids, I hear him shout from across the store: "There they are! How are the kids today?"
Today he finally sees me and smiles because he remembers he's promised me stories. I follow him up the century-old stairs and he shows me the second floor, filled to the rafters with vintage, deadstock hardware. There's a room of mid-century ductwork and shelves of dishware stretching to the far wall. There are antique cast-iron stoves and turn-of-the-century safes and early hot water heaters and drawer after drawer of unbelievable treasures: antique bike hardware, ice skate blades from the 1920s that you'd attach to your shoes, glass Thermos inserts, elaborate stove dampers. Richie takes me around for nearly an hour showing me each treasure with the excitement of a museum curator.
"This is where we played as kids," he says, "And where our kids played. Things weren't like they are nowadays. Back then you brought your kids with you to work." The kids of all the family businesses in Eastern Market would hang out here, he says. "We could watch them kill chickens down at Capitol, or hang out here. The boys liked it here because they could build things." Many of the store owners from around the market were old friends, and gathered often to play cards.
The store boasts the only rope-operated elevator in the city. Sandy tells me that at the bottom of the shaft there was a tunnel connected to the basement of the building next door, which was a maze of dead-end hallways and doors that opened on to brick walls. They speculate there was a prohibition-era distillery down there, and the tunnel and a secret walkway over the alley connecting the two buildings allowed the bootleggers to escape into the store and pretend to be shoppers if there was a police raid. Sandy suspects old Julius Berkovitz had some connection to the infamous Purple Gang, and shows me an old photo of the gangsters:
There are probably plenty of colorful stories collected over so many decades of running a store in such a rough town, but to their credit Richie and Sandy never once mention any crime other than bootlegging. When I ask about any crazy stories Richie says, "You mean like the guy who bought some ammo, shot himself in our vestibule and called to thank us for saving his life the next day?" Yeah, I say, like that. "Oh, there's lots of stories like that."
Busy Bee sells more than just hardware. There are used paperbacks, 25-cent coffee mugs, kitchen utensils and appliances, cleaning supplies, candy, Better Made potato chips. It's still something of the general mercantile it was when it opened in 1918. It's a "vernacular" shopping experience suited to the needs of a community with few other places to shop. There are very few things you might need around the house that you can't get here.
Over the years that I've shopped here, I've noticed that the prices are probably lower than they should be. I've even compared prices on certain items to the prices at suburban big boxes and in every case this little corner hardware store's prices were lower. Part of that, of course, is because it serves a population that simply can't afford inflated prices. But there's something else: I've heard Richie say, "If we were only doing this to make a profit, we'd have stopped a long time ago." They do put some of the vintage stuff on eBay. They still move some salt in the winter. But it is clear they're in here every day for reasons other than money. As Jonathan Richman sings, "this was love." Then I hear Richie say something else: "If we close up shop, this will just be another empty storefront, just another dead corner in Detroit." The store is known for the bright yellow murals on its exterior: busy worker bees holding tools and bumbling around, making a corner that could be dead buzz with life instead.
Sandy's husband Mike operates a lock shop in the back of the store, and eventually they want to retire up north. Richie's boys, both in school, work in the store on weekends but have their own dreams and don't want to take over the business. Sandy urges me to write something about how eventually they want to sell it to a family who'll run Busy Bee in the same spirit their family has for all these years. "Maybe," she says, "Someone will read what you write and say 'Hey, that doesn't sound so bad.'"
"If I can even come close to conveying how important this place is," I say, "Plenty of people will at least wish they could."
Also, this is the sort of story that John at Detroitblog does really well. Sweet Juniper is a personal blog and I only plan to write about businesses in the context of how we shop in a city without much national retail; if you are interested in reading more generally about interesting Detroit businesses, there's no better place than Detroitblog.