FORWARD INTO THE PAST

When I was starting on Dragon you may remember me moaning about how difficult it was to find teeny-size steel crochet hooks. Yes, I know they’re available on line from specialty dealers, but I don’t like to place small orders for things I need yesterday.

Today I found some. I stumbled into a local store and into another era: Balich’s 5 & 10, 1314 Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington, MA 02476. If you were a kid in an Eastern US city during the ’50s or ’60s you’ll remember stores like this – frowzy, little, local everything-stores that aspired to be a Woolworth’s but were too tired to dust or take inventory. I remember them on Avenue U in Brooklyn, NY; in the Bronx, NY and in Teaneck and Hackensack, NJ. Friends have described them to me in Philadelphia, PA, Providence, RI, too. Think of a narrow avenue storefront, with merchandise on wooden raised-rim tables, with overflowing shelves above and bins below. Think of retail chaos, wood floors, dusty stained tin ceilings, insufficient lighting, window glass mostly obscured by advertising posters.

This shop fits the description spot on. Central casting couldn’t have dredged up a place so perfectly frozen in time. It’s dim, the three aisles are just barely squeeze through size, and oddments hang from every available surface.Balichs stocks everything from bra size expanders and pink plastic curlers, to cast iron skillets, Red Heart yarn, squirt guns (remember ray-gun shaped squirt guns?), screwdrivers and pencil sharpeners. O.K., so there were Sponge Bob toys there among the pick-up sticks and checkers sets, but the spirit of the place hadn’t budged a bit since ’62.

While the yarn offerings were surprising (that they existed at all) and disappointing, I was bowled over that they carried three lines of crochet threads down to size 20, plus a full range of Boye knitting/crochet accessories and aluminum knitting needles. They also had a dusty display of steel crochet hooks down to size #14. I bought the last one of every size below #11 (1.0mm down to .75mm).

I also found a thing I knew from childhood, now need desperately, but couldn’t find anywhere else. We’ve got a rather aggressive gas stove in the new house. While it flames up nicely to boil water and saute with speed, it’s impossible to turn it low enough to do a gentle heat. As a kid I’d heard these called “simmer guards” or “flame tamers.” Now for the princely investment of $2.45, I’ve got one, too. I’ll be trying it out tonight and will report back on how well it works.

Here’s a picture of?Balich’s on the rather irreverant blog of some local teen who appears to be terminally bored with life in this burg. As a fellow high school humor magazine refugee, I wipe away tears of laughter, and say “Buck up, kid. It’s not as bad as Teaneck, NJ. 30 years from now you’ll be nostalgic for a decent crummy 5 & 10, too!”

So if you’ve got a need for a whatzis that big box stores just won’t meet, look around under local rocks to see if you’ve still got a store like this hanging on somewhere. Then subsidize history by buying something there.

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