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Sean Kirst: From blow torches to ergonomic shovels, Mr. Kaisertown has what you need

Randy Putnam needed a blow torch.

He is doing some masonry restoration on One Seneca Tower in downtown Buffalo, the building he still calls One Marine Midland Center in a giveaway of his deep Buffalo roots. Even before he arrived at the job early Thursday, on his slow ride through messy conditions from his East Concord home, his boss called to tell him:

No sense in coming in. The wind and snow off Lake Erie were rattling the downtown scaffolding, and no one was climbing anything in that weather. “Hell, yeah,” Putnam said, “a snow day!” Those words feel as good for him at 60 as they felt at 6, and before he headed home, he realized he could use a thing or two to help out in the cold.

His major goal was that blow torch, just in case the locks freeze up.

So Putnam pulled over outside Hector’s Hardware on Clinton Street, in a Kaisertown building that has been home to a hardware store, in some form, since 1898. He walked along narrow linoleum aisles where you can buy a jack knife or a thermometer or bird seed or Pepto Bismol or, at this time of year, a Christmas tree stand.

With a kind of hardware store intuition, Putnam knew where to go. He found the blow torch and tin snips and stopped to pay the proprietor, Bill Malczewski, also known around the neighborhood as “Accordion Bill,” in no small part because of his weekly comedic guest appearances with his old friend Dan Neaverth, at 3 p.m. Fridays on WECK Radio.

Malczewski learned to play the instrument almost 50 years ago at the now-closed Dick's Music Store, a neighborhood business whose former owner, Dick Szykowny, 83, is still a customer.

Along Clinton Street, they have yet another nickname for Malczewski, 59, offered with affection and respect:

Mr. Kaisertown.

"He's got a lot of stuff in that little store," Putnam said.

Hector's Hardware on Clinton Street in Kaisertown. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

He cashed out while Malczewski answered his ringing phone. It was his mother, Pauline Malczewski, 84, who lives upstairs. She was wondering just how bad the snow might be. Malczewski reassured her, before helping one guy whose snow blower needed a spark plug and another guy who said he had rats as big as cats on the floor of his factory.

As they left, the door slammed, a bell rang, and the place was quiet again.

“I came here when I was 12 years old,” Malczewski said. His folks were divorced and his mother was raising him on nearby Holly Street. He was always looking for a way to make an extra buck – when it snowed, he would go house-to-house with his shovel – and he began haunting the hardware store, part of a chain operated by the late Hector Chameli and his family.

Hector noticed. “You’re here all the time,” he told Malczewski. “I might as well put you to work.” So Malczewski started sweeping floors, and he learned the art of fixing broken windows or ripped screens. He graduated from Hutchinson Central Technical High School and enrolled at Canisius College, where he “spent a semester playing pinochle” and realized school wasn’t for him.

By the time he was 19, he was a part-owner of the hardware store. He was still living across the street when the Blizzard of ’77 pounded the area. “We never closed,” said Malczewski, recalling how the rest of the city shut down. While he eventually moved to West Seneca to raise four boys with his wife, Maryann, Malczewski's mom took up residence above the store.

As he offered that memory, as if he planned it, the phone rang again. It was his mother, telling him with delight that she had heard from a 96-year-old-friend whose health had worried her. Malczewski listened and offered his approval. Once the conversation ended, he said with good-natured confidence:

“She’ll call again.”

Malczewski sees it as a blessing. He is grateful for his family, for his business, for strong anchors in his life. "People say to me, 'The neighborhood is changing,'" he said. His response is: That is not anything to fear. Change is the tale of every city, of the country, of the world.

Yet some things that matter, throughout generations, can remain the same.

His hardware store is a kind of communal if-you-need-it-you-will-find-it-here for the neighborhood. Snowblower sales and maintenance, including pickup and delivery, are a major part of his business. So is window repair: An employee and close friend, Steve Krasinski, has worked in the store since the 1970s. He is an artist at returning glass or screen to old frames, a demand that always escalates in winter.

“People wake up one day,” Krasinski said, “and realize they’re cold.”

As for snow blowers purchased from Malczewski, Gus and Theodora Bechakas use one a few doors away, at Lucky’s Red Hots, and Jason Blamowski and Robin Reynolds use one at nearby Pizza by Molino's, which they co-own. Nigel Houenstein, who lives next door to Malczewski's store, wheeled out a snowblower Thursday at his house, then used it to blast away the snow in front of three or four adjacent homes and businesses.

Malczewski watched from the window, interested in Houenstein's progress, since that snowblower, too, came from his floor.

“Bill is the kind of guy,” said Robin Reynolds, “that if you go in there with something that’s broken, he’ll sell you the part and then show you how to fix it.”

Tom Chwalinski, a retired city planner who helps out at Molino's, said Malczewski also organizes an annual Dyngus Day celebration at St. Casimir’s Church, and has been a big part of fundraisers for the Heroes Grove in Houghton/Stachowski Park, honoring neighborhood veterans.

All of that does not leave much time for vacations, which for the Malczewskis consist of quick weekend trips to visit a granddaughter in Connecticut, the only one of their nine grandchildren who is not close to Buffalo.

"This is home," Malczewski said of his hardware store, where a flood of neighborhood residents stop by after the first snow to buy brushes for their cars, where he offers precise recommendations about the best variety of shovel. His personal favorite? A plastic model with a long blade that makes it easy to push snow off a sidewalk, though he said millennials prefer an ergonomically correct model, with a curving handle.

Malczewski also offers a fax service to customers, a service that he said reminds him constantly of how many neighborhood families are enduring hard times. Women and men stop by to use the fax when their power is shut off or their car is repossessed or if, in some other way, they are up against the wall.

“People are struggling,” said Malczewski, whose door is open to them, seven days a week. Sometimes they fax off  job applications. Malczewski will tell them there is no charge, as long as they bring him the $2 once they are hired.

One woman, he said, came back with the two bucks.

His store has that old-school hardware store scent, a combination of oil and grass seed and fertilizer. “My wife will tell me I smell like a hardware store,” he said, but it is an aroma that allows him to survive, separating him from the monster stores on big suburban roads where you can walk in and get almost everything.

What you cannot get is Accordion Bill, behind the counter.

Sure, he wonders sometimes what might have happened if he had stayed in college, if he had chased some professional career and maybe earned a ton of dough. But then he drops off a snowblower at the home of a white-haired retiree, and the guy invites him in and they sit down and drink a holiday shot, and Malczewski knows he is doing what he was born to do.

He is there if something starts to fall apart, in Kaisertown.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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