Who doesn’t love a hardware store — a real one, with sleds and shovels, pipes and paint, and a bunch of customers who seem to know each other and the two cats perched on the counter? (They’re called employees, by the way.)

When we had a gas leak at our house last week, my husband called our local hardware store to talk to the gas log man. He’d installed them, tended to them over five years, and made quick house calls no matter what he was doing. Could he take a look and make sure everything was OK?

He said he could just as soon as he was feeling better. But he never felt better. And Donnie Lewter, an iconic figure in the city of Huntsville, passed away a few days later at the age of 64.

Donnie said he had two families: His blood kin at Lewter Hardware, founded in 1928, and his friends and customers whose names he knew or eventually learned. His father, Donald Sr., knew his customers well, too, and just what they were looking for.

“If we don’t have it,” he told me once, “You probably don’t need it.” But when customers did buy something complicated, like a sprinkler system, Lewter Hardware would service it long after the warranty was over. It’s called customer service.

Every town in the South used to have a hardware store like Lewter, one that sold more than nuts and bolts and screws, things that hold the world together. A good hardware store also sold itself, from the neatly arranged shelves to the knowledgeable salespeople who work there.

Now hardware stores of this kind have been shoved aside by strutting big box stores. They may have all the nuts and bolts, but they don’t have employees who know where they are. They don’t have people who’ve been working there since high school and can tell you which shelf holds drain pipes, all sizes. By the way, if you follow them, they’ll take you there.

And some of them make house calls.

Donnie Lewter’s house calls were more than just a “I’ll drop by and fix it,” kind of visit. Once he came because he knew we were having out-of-town company and he said he pictured us sitting in front of the fire after dinner, warmed by the flames leaping up from the gas logs he’d just rearranged.

He had names for his customers and their families. Parents were “mama and daddy,” as in, “How’s your mama and your daddy?” Wives were “boss ladies.” All of his conversations were delivered in a soft, Southern drawl. You didn’t need to be in a hurry when Donnie was talking. That would have been rude. And it wouldn’t have done any good, anyway.

Once when I didn’t know the name of a part I needed to buy, he told me to take a picture of it on my phone and we’d locate it once I came to the store. He said the philosophy of the store was that women were not to be talked down to. Women could fix things, too.

They were boss ladies, after all.

With Donnie’s passing, our town has lost a soft-spoken Southern gentleman in overalls and work boots. With every house call, he told a story. There was no charge for that.

By AKDSEO