The lineup started well before the store opened at 9 am. By the time this scribe arrived at 12:30 pm it had managed to move inside, but nonetheless still extended the length of the centre aisle and curled around and up the next aisle. The flow of customers entering the store was constant. Many in the line knew each other, because as one explained, “We're all regulars”. And weren't we all?
Conventional wisdom explains that we measure time in hours, days and years. The truth be told we actually mark it by events. Today is one of those events to mark the passage of time, and tradition, as Billings Home Hardware begins a liquidation sale in preparation for closing. For 51 years Billings Hardware and owner Bob Billings were a constant on King Street. The mantra regarding the store, known and repeated by generations of Brockville residents was, “If you can't find it anywhere else, Billings will have it”. It was repeated in a multitude of variations by those exiting the store today.
“You knew whatever you needed it was at Billings. If they didn't have it, no one did. They probably didn't make it anymore.”
“I'm going to miss it a lot, I've been shopping here for 40 years. I had a game I played whenever I came to Billings. I would try to find what I wanted before they could ask me if I needed some help. I never won, they were that good at looking after their customers.”
“I remember when they moved to this location from further down the street. I didn't recognize it for a while as it was too organized! It soon settled back into the pattern I was familiar with. I'm saying this lovingly, because part of the experience was a chat with Bob and staff, while they found something for you. It wouldn't have been the same if you just walked in and out. It had a sort of an old-fashioned, more relaxed feel that I'll miss.”
Rob Marischitz took time away from coordinating the sale for a quick word. “This is sad and personal for me, Bob's a friend. He has many friends and he is loved and respected in the business community. Everyone knows Billings and Bob and that it was a local hardware. This is 51 years of history.” Like I said Billings served generations of Brockville residents.
Daughter Jan McGregor recalled that on the very rare occasion when Bob didn't have an item he would order it by Purolator, at no extra charge and have it there by the next morning at 10. “We had free home delivery until very recently.” When she stopped in the store a while back, but not too far back she said she found, “the hand-written credit list, sales to regulars based on trust and written on a list. Can you imagine?”
Perhaps the last word should go to the very first lady I chatted with outside Billings door. When I asked how long she had been shopping at Billings she replied, “This is my first visit”. Then she explained that she was a visitor and was walking by when she saw the closing sign and the stream of folks walking in and out. “So I thought I'd check it out.” She didn't really see anything that appealed to her but she remarked that, “Everyone inside was talking about how long the store has been here and how they always had what you wanted. They seemed to really like the owner and the staff. It must have been quite a store.”