London

He ran a neighbourhood hardware store for decades. Now, the nostalgia is bringing him back

Lee Helmkay worked at Argyle Hardware in London, Ont., for 40 years, from the day it opened in 1947 until it closed in 1986, after purchasing the store from his father in the late '50s. Now 92 and living in Leduc, Alta., he plans to go to his old neighbourhood this May.

Lee Helmkay, 92, will fly from Leduc, Alta., back to London, Ont., to visit old stomping grounds

Owner Lee Helmkay, right, worked at Argyle Hardware in London, Ont., for 40 years. Bill Baxter, left, was an employee for 31 years. Helmkay is now 92 and living in Leduc, Alta., but plans to return to London in May to visit his old stomping grounds. (Submitted by Paddi Sprecher)

Lee Helmkay worked at Argyle Hardware in London, Ont., for 40 years, from the day it first opened in 1947 when he was 17, until it closed in 1986.

But the 92-year-old hasn't given those days much thought in recent years — until his daughter posted an old photograph of Helmkay in the strip mall hardware store on social media, and longtime Londoners began sharing their memories of Helmkay and his store. 

Now, Helmkay wants to go back.

Helmkay, pictured when he was 21, started working at his father's hardware store when he was just 17. (Submitted by Paddi Sprecher)

"I appreciate it," said Helmkey from his home in Leduc, Alberta. "It brought back memories that I haven't had in years and years."

"He loved that store," said Helmkay's daughter, Paddi Sprecher, who lives just west of Edmonton.

"He was there six days a week by 8 o'clock in the morning, home at 6 o'clock at night. You could set your watch by him."

Today, Helmkey is a resident of Leduc's Plainview Place Independent Living, while his wife of 70 years lives in a nearby nursing home.

"He's been kind of been depressed," said Sprecher, because of the whole COVID-19 situation, with lockdowns and restrictions. "This really picked him up, took him back and now he's really excited."

Argyle Hardware operated from 1947 to 1987. (Facebook)

Plans to visit old stomping grounds

Helmkay purchased the store from his father in the late '50s, and owned and operated it until it closed in the late '80s.

In recent months, Sprecher has been sifting through and organizing her parents' things and hauled out some old photographs to show her dad.

He recalled spending 15 minutes with a customer on how to change a five-cent tap washer, Sprecher said. "That's the kind of service he gave.

"I saw the memories that it brought for him, and I just thought I'd put it out there and maybe bring some people some good memories."

The response from people who recalled regularly visiting the store has been overwhelming.

"I think those little stores were the hub of the community," she said.

"It took him to tears. He was quite emotional about it, to know that he made such an impact, and that so many people cared affected him emotionally, and surprised him.

"Nowadays you go into a store, you don't know anybody," she said.

Remembering Argyle Hardware in London, Ont.

4 months ago
Duration 0:27
Lee Helmkay, 92, owned and operated Argyle Hardware in London, Ont. for decades starting in the late 50s. A photo of the shop posted on social media sparked an outpouring of memories from the community, and Helmkay expressed his appreciation.

In a video his daughter posted on Facebook, Helmkay said: "I want to thank you very much. Paddi came over, and brought her cellphone and showed me a whole lot of words from you folks back home in London."

All of it has inspired Helmkay. He and his daughter plan to go back to east London this May to visit the old neighbourhood.

"He can use the walker," said Sprecher. "He wants to walk the old neighborhood, go see the store. Kind of a history tour for him."

Helmkay is shown with one of his grandchildren. (Submitted by Paddi Sprecher)
When Paddi Sprecher posted a photo of the old Argyle Hardware store to social media, it was met with an outpouring of love from the community. Sprecher's father, Lee Helmkay, worked at the store for 40 years.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Zandbergen

Host, London Morning

Rebecca Zandbergen is from Ottawa and has worked for CBC Radio across the country for more than 20 years, including stops in Iqaluit, Halifax, Windsor and Kelowna.

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