Solving problems at Brentwood's B&C Hardware, 1 ‘thingamajig’ at a time

Friday, March 11, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 11

Brad Ray stands between the corrugated “buckets” that hold nails that can be sold in bulk or by the handful.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Pushing at the bridge of his spectacles – with lenses that transition from clear to dark depending on the light – the 60-year-old, who likes to ratchet folks’ woes down to the basic nuts and bolts, looks toward the paint counter near the doorway of B&C Ace Hardware.

“We used to have two or three guys, back when it was OK to smoke inside stores, who would come in all the time,” says Brad Ray, glasses darkening as the uncommon sunny day blasts into his empire of dirt. Well, not just dirt, as in potting soil, but also fertilizers, heat-pump filters, bird seed, pocket knives, lumber and various implements of destruction and construction.

“They would stand by the paint counter and smoke their cigarettes and talk about the good old days,” he says, bright smile fading a bit. “They’re gone now. We’ve lost a lot of them.”

While the Lucky Strike (“LSMFT”), roll-your-own or Marlboro men of old have retreated to St. Pete’s Smoking Lounge, there remain plenty of younger, less-fragrant regulars who visit because those simpler days, for the good times, seem to flourish inside this old-fashioned hardware store that’s served Brentwood for 39 years.

Tucked on Pewitt Drive in Brentwood, B&C – a tightly packed, 5,000-square-foot store that offers individual attention, nails sold by the handful, plastic sleds (“No Returns”) and brown recluse traps – thrives in this era of big-box “home” warehouses, whose names are considered “dirty words,” unspoken in Brad’s domain.

“We’re kind of a treasure trove of Brentwood right here,” offers employee Charlie Rosewater, 42, who came to work here after a career spent as a handyman … and who declines the opportunity to have his well-bearded face photographed.

“I’m not into picture-taking. Someone might match me up with something on the Post Office bulletin board.”

Beard and all, the MTSU graduate – “B.A. in philosophy, which is worthless” – Charlie often serves as the face of B&C, welcoming both regulars and drop-ins.

“I still do some handyman jobs on the side, but I got this job here two years ago because I used to stop here a lot when I needed supplies.

“The thing about being a handyman is I got too old to climb up and down a 50-foot ladder every day,” winter, spring, summer, fall.

Charlie figures B&C Ace is as good a place as any to apply his philosophy degree. “It’s critical thinking,” he says. “It’s being able to work at things for different purposes, solve people’s problems.”

Smiling, he adds he’s especially grateful for a “laid-back boss” who allows a hardware philosopher to practice academic skills while sorting through faucets, flanges, fescue and other purpose-driven items.

“Brad is why I came here,” he says, dropping out of the conversation to help a man who needs a small replacement bolt. “A Phillips head,” the customer specifies, as the two begin rummaging through drawers, painstakingly comparing the man’s busted bolt with potential replacements.

Brad, meanwhile, is called to the phone on the wall behind the counter of the store he has managed for three decades, his literal place in life. “The best thing about this is helping the people,” he professes.

From this store, he has witnessed Brentwood’s transition from dusty crossroads and gravel parking lots to a bustling suburb worthy of the hordes of transplants from Nashville’s sometimes errant big cousin, Los Angeles.

“I think they’ve done a good job managing the growth here,” says Brad, praising city leadership.

From his vantage at B&C, he also witnessed Brentwood’s most violent day. “I was looking right out the front door when they shot the guy,” he recalls. “He was walking down the street, near where the hardware store was on Franklin Road before we moved.

“I heard gunshots popping. I seen him fall. Police came over here to tell us to lock our doors, they thought he had an accomplice,” he says of the gunfight on Franklin Road, May 6, 2002, the day a bank robbery turned into a full-on police firefight that left brave officers scarred and the bad guy dead.

Some have labeled it “the day Brentwood lost its innocence.”

To Brad, as always, it was a day to put customers first, having them hunker below window level while the well-armed police posse passed en route to following nearby railroad tracks looking for an accomplice who didn’t exist.

It was the bloodiest and perhaps most interesting day in Brad’s half-life of managing B&C – both at its current location and the smaller, 2,500-foot store that was on Nobles Corner, a mercantile strip at the southwest tip of the Franklin Road-Old Hickory Boulevard intersection.

That original store, along with a restaurant, a hotel and a Gulf station were steam-shoveled beneath memory lane to make way for a Walgreens.

Progress means being able to buy a Fleet Enema or a greeting card for granny at 2 a.m., if you judge by the numbers of Middle Tennessee corners presided over by Walgreens or CVS stores (Like the one that now fills the spot in Flat Rock once occupied by Lorenzo’s, a family friendly Italian restaurant presided over by a former tag-team wrestler from Buffalo. Another story sometime, perhaps, but I loved his chicken Parmesan, he was good to my kids, and my Uncle Al Conte – my godfather – knew his tag-team partner up in New York State.)

“I really liked that old store,” says Brad, who began managing that place facing Franklin Road on Nobles Corner for the late “Doc Bradley” – Nashville pharmacist Joe Bradley – 30 years ago and who still works for Doc’s son Phil, who is in the medical supply business.

“But we’ve been here (on Pewitt) about 19 years now and there’s a lot more room.” Twice the space.

Waylon would have liked this “new place.” Yep, Waylon Jennings, the greatest singer in the history of country music and a damn nice guy – despite his lonesome, ornery and mean façade – was a B&C regular on Nobles Corner.

“He came in for a little bit of everything,” says Brad, noting the greatest outlaw could literally walk from his home – just across Old Hickory Boulevard from the O’Charley’s in Brentwood – to satisfy his hardware fancy.

“He’d buy anything from light bulbs to nuts and bolts. Waylon was a really nice fellow.”

Waylon no doubt enjoyed the nostalgia brought on by the genuine hardware store aroma, a mixture of paint, fertilizer, wood, and other smells that has not changed since I was a kid in Chicago.

“We have a lot of people in their 40s or 50s who come in and say ‘this smell reminds me of when I used to go into the hardware store with my grandfather or dad,’” Brad explains.

Another quick note: I mention above the O’Charley’s, literally across the highway from where the Flying W still hangs over Waylon’s former driveway, long after the Rev. Will Campbell presided over the honky-tonk hero’s 2002 burial in the desert.

An ailing Will, a friend, promised he’d tell me more about the graveside gathering of famously brokenhearted outlaws if he got to feeling better. He died in 2013, leaving the details to my imagination.

For about as long as I can remember that Brentwood O’Charley’s had a mural on a back wall that featured Waylon. During the most recent rebranding, that mural vanished, another melancholy reminder of our tradition-be-damned world. The workmen who repainted the wall probably didn’t know who the cowboy with the long hair and beard was. Eddie George also was painted over.

While Waylon never got to see the Pewitt Drive store, other country stars did.

Country Music Hall of Famers Little Jimmy Dickens and Jim Ed Brown were regulars. “Jim Ed was such a nice guy. He died not long ago,” adds Brad. Same for Little Jim, dubbed “Tater” by pal Hank Williams.

Course everybody’s favorite was Eddy Arnold, in many ways Brentwood’s founding father, the guy who bought up property so the musical hillbillies – not welcome in Belle Meade – would have a place to build their mansions and spend their millions.

“Mr. Eddy would come in and we’d talk about different things. He was such a nice man. I’d ask about how his wife was doing,” says Brad of the great man who more than once danced with my then-small children on the sidewalk outside the aforementioned O’Charley’s.

“After his wife died, Mr. Eddy missed her a lot. That was a bad situation for him. He would talk about her and how he missed her.”

Miss Sally, as Eddy’s beloved wife of 66 years was known, died in March 2008. The crooner who took country music to “The Tonight Show” guest host’s chair and beyond, died that May. Old age and heartbreak.

Probably should be noted here that the hardware store was just called “B&C” before it joined up with Ace about the time Brad joined up. The “B,” of course, is for Doc Bradley. The “C” for Eddy’s lunch buddy, Bobby Campbell, of Campbell Glass, part-owner of the hardware for awhile.

“He’s retired now, but he still comes in here sometimes,’” says Brad of the guy whose glass company property has made way for a financial institution, a medical clinic and more. Heck, there’s even a place to buy smoothies across the street.

Brad notes the old building on Nobles Corner served area residents well. “Originally, I think it was Thompson’s Grocery, if I’m not mistaken,” he says of its pre-hardware days.

His hardware career actually was born in Franklin.

“I was working at Standard Farm Store on the Square. I started as a clerk and managed later on. Worked there 10-12 years. We sold hardware, we sold appliances. Sold furniture upstairs. Sold saddles.

“Back then there was no Walmarts or anything, and we were really a general store. Actually sold black-and-white TVs. Color TVs when they first came out. It was a really big store, three floors.”

About the time Walmart began its neon conquest of the darkness at the edges of towns across America, Standard went out of business.

Fortunately, by then, Brad had time to meet and marry Rene, a clerk at the nearby Ben Franklin on Main Street. Married almost 36 years, the two have grown children, Susan Wood and Brandon Ray.

“After we went out of business at Standard Farm, I went to work for a few months for my brother-in-law, who was building houses. Then Doc Bradley called me and asked me to manage B&C, and I started working for him.”

He smiles at the memory of that “really great man,” who launched Brad’s 30-year-stint as Brentwood’s best-known helpful hardware man.

While hardware is his career, he honed his work ethic as a child working for his parents at Ray’s Drive-In Market, a Nashville produce store on Eighth Avenue, near the reservoir.

“When I was 6, 7 years old, I was doing everything from sweeping floors to even helping unload trucks and filling up the Coca-Cola machine. You remember those machines where you opened the top and slid the drinks in and out?”

That storefront fell victim to urban renewal, and for the last part of his working life World War II veteran Milton Ray and wife Evelyn, Brad’s parents, ran one of the first antique stores in what now is known as the city’s antique district, that cluster of buildings filled with valuable refuse near where Zanies makes you laugh.

For Brad, however, the future was not in old stuff, but in hardware, sold the old-fashioned way to customers who are asked if they need help as soon as they enter the store.

“I’d say about 75 percent of our business is people who come in here with a problem and it’s our job to help them solve it,” he explains.

“A lot of them come in and don’t know really what they are looking for,” adds Charlie, stroking his beard, just after telling a caller that the store is “behind the Valvoline, on the left if you’re coming south on Franklin Road after crossing Old Hickory.”

“People come in here and they want a ‘thingamajig’ or a ‘whatchamacallit,’” says the former handyman, noting his greatest pleasure comes when he figures out what it is they need, helps them find it and, if necessary, teaches them how to use it.

“Every day, three or four times a day, people come in here and say ‘I appreciate you guys being here. I hate going to those other stores. A lot of people come in here just to wander around,” Charlie says, before disappearing into the rows of shelves to help one customer while his boss finishes writing up an order for another.

“This is just an old-fashioned hardware store,” Brad says, surveying his collection of paints, pliers and plungers filling what became part of the Ace family about 30 years ago.

“I think we’re number 5,576. There’s probably close to 10,000 (stores) nationwide. And they have them in Hawaii and in Jamaica.”

Of course, this is the only hardware store where “Mr. Eddy” used to hang out, wandering free of his nearby office behind a now-defunct insurance agency.

”He loved it here,” says Brad, scanning his empire of dirt, seed and all the fixings.

It’s obvious: He loves it here, too.