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Growing up at Schensky's Hardware on Monroe Street in the 1940s and '50s
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Schensky's survived some very lean years.
Credit:Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS-41824

I learned a lot about the street where I grew up in Isthmus' cover story about Monroe Street. But I was disappointed to find no mention of Schensky's Hardware.

Schensky's was located at 1835 Monroe St. for approximately 50 years, from the 1940s to the 1990s. The store was founded, owned and operated by my parents, Margaret and Harold Schensky, and I was raised there.

In addition to hardware, Schensky's carried toys and housewares. Neighborhood children came in to wander the toy aisles and spend their allowance. Parents shopped there for Christmas bikes, wagons and scooters because they knew my father would assemble and deliver them free of charge. My mother bought all the merchandise from wholesalers in Milwaukee, and I got to go along on buying trips via the train from Madison. She also did all the window displays, including the homemade signs and banners.

Mom knew just about everyone in the neighborhood, and folks would stop in to chat even if they didn't need anything. She got to know some customers quite well, including an elderly spinster named Miss Davis. Mother knew Miss Davis didn't have any relatives so she grew suspicious when she saw her walking toward the Randall Bank with a young man she did not recognize. The young man turned out to be a con artist who was about to score. Thanks to Mom, he did not succeed. Miss Davis' savings were safe, and both she and my mother made the front page of the Madison newspapers.

Like each of my parents, the store had a very humble beginning. My father had previously worked at Ender's Electric, which was also located on Monroe Street. My mother was a hairdresser and encouraged my dad to start his own business.

At that time the store was divided between various small businesses. Daddy rented one of the sections and opened an electrical repair shop where people brought their radios, toasters and fans to be repaired. Gradually, the business evolved into an independent hardware store that filled the whole space. Eventually my parents bought the building instead of continuing to rent it.

World War II raged but my father was not drafted because of a bad case of ulcers. Instead, he taught radio to the Air Force trainees out at Truax Field while my mother ran the store. At that time, we lived above Jordan's grocery store next to Neuhauser's drug store. My mother didn't have a washing machine so she washed my diapers by hand on a scrub board. There was no such thing as permanent press, which meant ironing all my little cotton dresses. Of course I went along to the store every Monday through Saturday. My playpen was a cardboard box in the back next to the nail bin display.

My father's repair bench was moved to the basement, where he continued his repair business. As a result of the war, electronics had evolved a lot, and my dad began servicing television sets. He was completely self-taught, and much of his testing equipment was homemade. Early televisions were quite primitive, with large, bulky picture tubes. If he couldn't find the problem during a service call, Daddy would wrestle the chassis into our Buick and bring it back to the shop. After it was repaired, he would hoist it back into the Buick and return it to the customer.

In the basement of the store was the infamous coal furnace. I'm not sure how old I was when it was converted to oil, but I can still remember Daddy shoveling coal from the coal bin into the fire so it wouldn't go out. Next to the furnace was a two-burner hot plate where Mom cooked grilled cheese sandwiches and sloppy joes for lunch.

My favorite store on Monroe Street was Rasmussen's Bakery down the block, where we bought sugared doughnuts and gooey pecan rolls. The family lived above the bakery where I played with Diane, one of the three Rasmussen daughters.

Archer's Pharmacy was on one side of my parents' store, and a dime store was on the other. I wasn't allowed to go into the dime store or Main Appliance because my folks considered both to be our competition. Later the dime store became a restaurant and Archer's became an antique and import store, but by that time I had left home.

Schensky's survived some very lean years. It was hard to compete with the cheaper prices charged by the hardware chains, and the new Midvale Shopping Center beckoned customers away from Monroe Street. Both my mother and father alternated between second jobs to make ends meet. They were too stubborn or too proud to give up on Schensky's Hardware.

My dad died of a heart attack when he was in his 70s, and my mom continued to run the store until it became too much for her. During all their years in business, they never employed any help except my Aunt Marie, who worked off and on during the busy Christmas holidays.

After so many years on Monroe Street, Schensky's Hardware is just a memory.

Sharron Wartinger, 70, is a former resident of Madison and now lives in Atlanta. The former location of Schensky's Hardware, at 1835 Monroe St., is now the site of J. Kinney, Florist. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.

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