Vieques isn’t exactly a shopper’s paradise.
A thorough inspection of all the gift shops in Isabel takes less than half an hour.
You might manage to kill forty-five minutes strolling through the emporia of Esperanza, but only if you dawdle with intent.
And yet the island’s stores are intriguing in their own way.
Take the hardware stores. When you buy a house on a tropical island and have it gutted and start over from scratch, you inevitably spend a lot of time wandering up and down the aisles of the local hardware stores, searching desperately for things they almost certainly don’t have.
During our first couple of years on the island, there were days when we spent more time in the hardware store than we did at the beach. As much as I enjoy home projects, this equation seems to violate several laws of nature.
There are three main hardware outlets on the island (and several smaller ones), all locally owned. Nales, the largest of these, would be considered a modest mom-and-pop store in an urban setting, but in Vieques it’s the place to see and be seen for the home improvement set.
Situated behind a chain link fence near the intersection of Routes 200 and 201, Nales is spacious by local standards, with a large courtyard and an open-front shed to the south of the main building for bulk purchases of stone, gravel and plywood.
Inside there’s a decent, though hardly outstanding, selection of garden supplies, hardware, and household goods.
There’s even a paint shop in the rear. This is where we had so meticulously registered our color choice the year before only to have it equally meticulously ignored by Daniel when it came time to paint the interior of our house.
Nales is an acquired taste. The staff isn’t always as friendly or as helpful as they could be, and the item you’re looking for is almost certain to be out of stock.
And yet we like the place.
Maybe it’s because we’re always a little bit happier on Vieques than anywhere else, whatever we happen to be doing to any given time.
Maybe it’s because we love our house and—despite the fact that we may occasionally complain about the effort required to keep it in perfect order—we honestly enjoy every last chore.
Or maybe it’s the intangible things about the place, like the Siamese cat who inhabits every corner of the store, fixing patrons with her defiant crystal blue stare before curling briefly but affectionately around their legs.
Or possibly it’s even O-Lan, the young woman who runs the paint corner with cool efficiency but who blushes charmingly when you ask about her unlikely name (her mother was a Pearl Buck fan).
Then there’s the hardware store in Floridá, located on a residential backstreet less than a mile from Nales, which couldn’t be more different.
Here the pace is slow and friendly. The staff members, who speak almost no English, go out of their way to be helpful.
Considering the store’s small size, its stock is plentiful if unpredictable. It was here that we found the blue and white dishes for our kitchen and the strangely hard to find step-stool that has (literally) supported so many of our household projects.
But it was also here that we spent a sweaty quarter-hour looking for a spade for digging in the garden before being told, “We don’t have.”
Then there’s the testosterone-driven hardware store on Route 200 just outside of Isabel. If Vieques were a high school, this is where the tough boys would hang out.
The staff is almost exclusively male and often abrupt. The aisles are dark and narrow, and there’s an indefinable air of menace about the whole place.
Hands down, this is my favorite of the three.