What We Bring With Us: “I Want One Of These”

If “one good test is worth a thousand expert opinions” then it’s also true that “one broken part is worth a thousand detailed diagrams.” When it comes to seeking replacement parts, have what you need in hand. That’s not a fancy metaphor, I mean to physically put the broken whatever in your paws and bring it with you to the store or junkyard.

This simple act cuts through the potential confusion about what exactly is needed and will prevent repeat trips. Most stores will have tens, if not hundreds, of options for replacement. If you go looking for a lightbulb at a typical big-box store, you can expect a whole aisle of choices. You can easily tell a lightbulb apart from a lawnmower, but can you distinguish the lightbulb you need from the 346 other lightbulbs on display? What was the wattage? What do the threads look like? What color temperature do I need? Hmm…I see there are bulbs here with different heights. Will this taller one fit in my fixture?

When I need a replacement for something, I usually march down to the hardware store with the broken one in my pocket. I’ve saved a lot of time by simply showing the busted thing to the clerk and saying “I need one of these.”

When your choices look similar, knowing generally what you need isn’t very helpful (“A bolt please…”). Being able to physically compare your options can save a lot of time.
(image: Lee Russell / Library of Congress)

Of course, not every broken thing can fit in your pocket. For those cases, a good substitute can be to snap a few pictures, or to write down the part and model numbers. However, these identifiers can be discontinued or change; also, this strategy assumes someone can translate this information into what you need. There might be multiple companies, apart from the original manufacturer, making “compatible” replacement parts. Hopefully, there will be a mapping between these worlds (OEM part #XXX ⇔ aftermarket part #YYY). However, there’s nothing quite like the ability to put broken and new, side-by-side, spotting any differences between the two before you make the long drive home.

Bonus round: have you ever gone to the store and forgotten the one thing that you went there for? I have done this (all those free samples in the deli department can be very distracting…mmm, cheese). Let’s just say that it’s harder to forget your trip’s purpose with a broken part weighing down your pocket!


  • Header image: Maxham, Jason, photographer. A lone screw. December 9, 2016.
  • Lee, Russell, photographer. Nuts and bolts, junkyard, near Abbeville, Louisiana. Nov, 1938. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/fsa1997024248/PP/.

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