Guidry’s Hardware Store, in Lafayette Louisiana, is something of an anachronism. Small, and family owned, it is the antipathy of our times’ omnipresent “Big Box” hardware store. Unlike a Home Depot or Lowe’s — which are as uniform in Jersey City, NJ as in Baton Rouge, LA –Guidry’s actually serves the specific Cajun community that patronizes it; cast iron cookware, locally made smokers, crawfish burners, oysters knives, zydeco washboards, hurricane lights, and “Cajun Microwaves,” are all found in its purvey. If Guidry’s did nothing more than sell hardware and cookware, it would still be vastly more interesting than the multitude of DIY stores that make up the popular consciousness; but Guidry’s does do more — it tells the story of perseverance: of a people, a place, and a culture.
Established in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Guidry’s sits at 1818-22 Jefferson Street, on a small road not far from a big road in a low-lying brick building next to a tall, hanger-like, metal shop. As my wife and I drove slowly up the street, the conjoined buildings appeared as a father and son holding hands, slowly ambling — the familial nature of Guidry’s can’t help but be noticed.
As we stepped into the store on a rainy August morning, we were welcomed with a genuine warmth — and as complete a lack of pretense — as those who “must be down from Baton Rouge” should be accorded (While technically I was down from Baton Rouge as of that morning, I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was actually from much further afield. Besides, the incongruity of a Yankee searching for a pit smoker, a cajun microwave, and a boil rig might have created unnecessary confusion and steered the conversation into undesirable territory).
“How y’all doing.” My wife and I smiled at the blue-eyed, spritely man who greeted us. I would later find out this man was Gerald Guidry, son of Guidry’s founder Cyrus Guidry. “How can I help y’all?”
I explained that up in Baton Rouge we were told that Guidry’s is the place to find Louisiana cookware, and that we were looking for a smoker, and a boil rig. The man looked at me with the disappointment of someone who had sold the last built-for-Guidry’s smoker yesterday, and after we had come all this way, but if we could wait until Monday…
I smiled at the genuine concern, informing him that it was in no way emergent, and asked instead about a boil rig. At this his eyes lit up, and he showed me some beautiful locally-crafted portable burners, set on wheels so they could be easily transported, and sized correctly for a turkey fryer or a crawfish pot. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the knowledge and care with which they were constructed. Copper gas lines, welded joints, 1/4 thick steel and angle. The same care was put into their beautiful Cajun microwaves, also made by craftsmen in Lafayette. And it struck me, after a time, that I wasn’t looking at welded steel frames or cypress boxes, at cookware, or even hardware for that matter. I was looking at a living scrap book, a photo album of fathers and sons, husbands and wives, first communions, weddings, funerals, boucheries, black storms, crawfish boils, Saturday night football and Sunday morning Mass. Of a people that still trade in the tangible; in steel and sweat and the work of their hands. A place that people come to still, because it has what they need, and not just on the shelves. Where traditions are embraced, understood, and honored; a source of continuity in an increasingly incongruous world.
As I walked through the store with my wife, I felt like I was in a museum, but not in a static way — maybe museum is the wrong metaphor — maybe a book is better: the people in the store, the items on the shelves, the worn floor tiles, and the mannequin by the door (outfitted with the tin cup and cajun washboard), all part of the narrative that has unfolded since 1933 and continues to unfold. And there was something profound to me about this, something I couldn’t express at the time, as I paid for what we could fit in the rental car, bid Gerald Guidry goodbye, and vowed to return on my next trip.
I was still thinking about this as we pulled into Johnson’s Boucanière, also in Lafayette, looking for a bite to eat. Inquiring about the store and their house-smoked meats (as we chefs cannot help but do), I was informed by the owner that this Johnson’s is the progeny of Johnson’s Grocery from Eunice, LA, and that all the smoking is done on-site. She then took me around back and showed me their first smoker, a genuine Guidry, and I knew there was a story here too, but I am going to save that for next time…