»  National Review

June 19, 2000

  Store of Stores


Out here in the suburban tracts that surround the Big Apple, a recurring feature of the landscape is the Big Orange. So also across the nation: if you own a house, and look after it yourself, you can probably give directions to your nearest Home Depot. I could drive blindfolded to mine. It is my favorite store; with appeal across a wide range of sensibilities. There is the Ding an sich, of course, the thing itself: a treasure cave of tools, lumber, roofing, shelving, siding, wiring, screws, nails, hooks, paint, glue, pipes, bulbs, soffits, grommets and grout. Then there are the ancillary pleasures of shopping in an establishment as big as the Palace of Versailles: the puzzle-solver's joy at tracking down the item you came in for along those endless aisles, the awe with which you contemplate the number of other things they persuaded you to buy along the way, the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing something that Al Gore and his legions of righteous anti-"sprawl" busybodies do not want you to do. Even that lurid orange color appeals to me — for family reasons, I am in sympathy with the Protestants of Ulster. Home Depot is my kind of store.

I have shares in the company, bought when the firm was already an established success (I am hopeless at spotting these things early, when it really counts) but destined, I am sure, to grow steadily in value through the years. There is, after all, a world to conquer, or at any rate fix up. Arthur Blank, the President and CEO of Home Depot, has announced his intention to take the enterprise global, and has already opened stores in Chile. As the embourgeoisement of the Third World proceeds, I expect to see that stencilled-white-on-orange logo in cities from Caracas to Canton. Mainland China has, in fact, recently embarked on a campaign to encourage home ownership; Andrew Cuomo was over there last month to advise them on setting up mortgage lending regulations. The Economist tracks the under- or over-valuation of foreign currencies by monitoring the price of a Big Mac in the various countries of the world. Twenty years from now I expect them to be able to base their index on a pound of one-inch galvanised roofing nails.

As meat attracts flies, so a success the size of Home Depot's draws all the pests of modern capitalism. Environmentalists have been picketing the company for years, claiming that it sells wood from endangered forests. Lovers of mom-and-pop hardware stores — those are the ones that are never open when you need them, and which charge twice what Home Depot charges for an identical product — swing into action whenever the company announces its intention to build a new outlet, inciting so-called "Orange Wars" in the affected localities. (I hope the Orange Wars turn out better than the Orange Riots that convulsed New York City in the 1870s, when the traditional marches of expatriate Ulstermen were shut down by violent mobs of Catholic Irish.)

And then, of course, there are those twin scourges of modern capitalism, the avaricious attorney and the out-of-control federal regulator. A class-action lawsuit was filed against Home Depot in 1994 on the grounds that (gasp!) its female employees were found mainly in back office and at the checkout registers, while floor employees were mostly male. The EEOC got in on the act, of course, and Home Depot had the bad luck to find itself facing a rabidly pro-plaintiff federal judge, Susan Illston of the Northern California district. The company settled for $87.5 million, of which $22.5 million was attorneys' fees. There is now a scattering of women working the floor at my local Home Depot. The customers are still overwhelmingly male, though; perhaps the trial lawyers should get to work on that. On the rare occasions I take my wife to Home Depot she heads straight for the gardening section. Is this acceptable behavior?

The EEOC notwithstanding, do-it-yourself is an indefeasibly masculine activity. Psychologically speaking, tools are close to weapons, the making and fixing of things a sort of war against the stubborn, unruly world of objects and substances. I recently applied for a pistol permit, in a state where applicants have to submit to an interview by the police. One of the questions I was asked was: Where did I plan to keep my pistols? I had not given the matter any thought at all and answered at random: In the basement, with my tools. A table saw is, after all, at least as dangerous as a handgun. Mine is, anyway; it is an ancient model, given to me by a neighbor, with a hole where the safety lock used to be. To start the thing you stick a screwdriver in the hole and jiggle it.

As well as being a very agreeable place to spend three or four hours browsing, Home Depot performs at least one other social function: they have taken up the slack on craft education, now being rapidly abandoned by the public schools. The high-school shop teacher is becoming an endangered species, a victim of the creeping intellectualization of our culture. (I watched a Fox News interview with the current Miss Universe last week. She has a master's degree in Communications. Why?) From its origin as a nation of traders, farmers and artisans, America seems to have swung round to the point of view hammered into the heads of Chinese kids for 2,000 years: Wan ban jie xia pin, wei you du shu gao  — "Everything else is low grade, only book-learning counts." To public-school bureaucrats, "vocational education" means teaching the kids to use a word processor. The coming generation will learn how to cut wood, join pipes or tile walls by attending Home Depot classes. In taking over this area of education, the company is extending its reach from the commercial sphere to the borders of the spiritual. Surely more people find inner peace working with their hands than do so working with their brains. Man is a tool-using animal, and the instinct to saw, sand, weld and fix goes very deep. The founder of the Christian religion presumably knew his woodworking tools; and his hour of sorrow and glory, from which the central symbol of that religion is taken, involved a wooden construction and some nails.

Literary folk are by no means immune from the D.I.Y. bug. Thoreau was, of course, a consummate handyman, though not a lucky one. When assembling material with which to build his hermitage at Walden Pond he purchased a shanty for $4.25 and took it apart board by board, carefully removing the nails and hinges. However, he left it all lying by the pond, and the hardware was stolen. Thoreau had to buy replacements in Concord — an additional expense of $4.00. George Orwell was luckier but less skillful. A keen amateur carpenter, during WW2 he wanted to put up some bookshelves but couldn't get the wood because of wartime rationing. His friend Michael Meyer (the translator of Strindberg) was the son of a timber merchant, who managed to procure some lengths of the most beautiful cherry-wood. Meyer reports that the finished product was "awful beyond belief." Orwell had whitewashed the shelves, "a criminal way to treat cherry-wood," and had not installed enough brackets, so that the shelves sagged "like hammocks." Tolstoy, in his back-to-the-soil phase at Yasnaya, helped an old peasant woman to rebuild her cottage, but I have no record of the quality of his work. Churchill, of course, was an accomplished bricklayer — so accomplished the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers issued him a union card. His efforts can still be inspected at Chartwell. While I can't claim any place is such exalted company, I note with pride that my tiny (eight feet square) study contains 60 feet of bookshelves and 28 square feet of desk space, as well as thirty — thirty! — electrical outlets, all created, assembled, installed, painted and wired by myself. Materials from Home Depot, of course.