Sunday, January 20, 2013

Harbor Freight

My partner Dennis is an inveterate jerry-rigger.  You know what a jerry-rig is---a quick, temporary fix that sometimes ends up being permanent.  Like, when the lever on the electric tea-kettle breaks off, you just insert a chopstick.  Works perfectly.  Economical; saves a trip to Target.  Of course, you are one chopstick short for your bowls of rice, but that won’t emerge until much later.  

Jerry-riggers rely on many bits and pieces of stuff for quick fixes---usually sorted into canning jars and loose tea tins that line the back of the workbench in the basement.  But when these riches fail, Dennis reluctantly yields to the last resort: the hardware store.

Dennis used to run to Gill-Roy’s, but the closest one---on Flushing Road---closed.  Not enough business, the staff said.  Property values declined, people stopped fixing things up.  So Dennis found a new hang-out: Harbor Freight.

Harbor Freight Tools is the working persons’ tool and equipment go-to place.  It was founded in 1977 as a catalog company.  It’s still family owned (according to their website).   “At a time when average folks need to stretch their dollars as far as possible, you can count on Harbor Freight Tools to continue to deliver on our founding commitment. Every day we deliver exceptional quality tools at ridiculously low prices.”

Flint’s Harbor Freight is completely average and very dollar stretching.  It’s not the usual place for suburban weekend do-it-yourselfers.  Sometimes you’ll see them---probably sent over from the big box stores.  They look dazed and desperate as they realize they’ve entered vise and drill press land.  

Surprisingly, the Flint store is very female.   Of course, you see a lot of women in Home Depot and Lowes.  They are selecting paint colors or lighting, or bathroom fixtures.  At Harbor Freight women roam the drill bit aisles.  And what’s more, women---middle-aged women---are on the floor helping them with real tools.  Maybe years back they would have worked in the shop.  Today they work at Harbor Freight.

Compared to Home Depot or Lowes, the Harbor Freight store is small.  So small that if I call out to Dennis, he’ll hear me.   The aisles are narrow and the shelves tightly packed.  No bulky ten- foot platform ladders here.   A woman in her fifties girdled in a padded back support belt with suspenders is helping Dennis.  Her name tag says “Patti.” They stand at a side wall that’s lined with drills and circular saws.  I’m sitting on a low stack of wooden dollies.  Dennis ponders an 18 volt 3/8” cordless drill/driver versus a drill/driver that plugs in.  He says he wants the consistent power that comes with a plug in. But the cordless gives you short-time power that’s flexible.  Then, again, the plug in would need an extension cord . . .  They move along the wall; Patti drags her hand lightly across the boxes as she goes.  According to Patti, her husband favored the plug in too, but then it wasn’t handy when he needed it in hard places.  “That’s what I told him,” says Patti.  “So what’s the use of all that power anyway?”   Dennis goes for the cordless.  Patti has won.   

We go to check out.  Now comes the deal: super coupons for free items---tape measures, scissors, and small flashlights.  I have to choose.  We already have a couple of tape measures and several pairs of scissors.  I go for the flashlight; maybe we’ll have a dinner party and use them as favors. 

In Los Angeles we go to Harbor Freight too.  This one’s in Lomita, a small city in LA County that straddles Pacific Coast Highway as it winds along toward Long Beach.   Dennis needs a digital multi-meter, and then maybe some bungee cords, and there’s a bench brush on sale. Clutching his list and a sheaf of Harbor Freight ads, Dennis forges ahead.  Meantime, I hold open the front door for an older woman in glasses with a gray Dutch cut.  She pushes a cart full of stuff toward the parking lot, the crumpled tails of her checked flannel shirt flapping below her old sweat shirt.

Like the Flint store, this Harbor Freight has its own local flavor.  The Lomita mix---white, Hispanic and Latino, Asian, Native American, Black, and Pacific Islander---roams the aisles.   Young Hispanic women stock shelves, or dart into the storeroom.  Young Mexican guys in A-shirts reach top shelves with tattoo-covered arms.  Middle-aged bikers, their gray hair pulled into thin pony tails, cluster in the automotive section.  A tall, elderly white-haired man, so thin that his leather belt holds up his pants in large gathers, confers with his wife, as he methodically turns the 24 pages of ads in the monthly savings book. 

The signs over the aisles are bi-lingual.  I stand with my head tilted back and sound out “cabrestantes” (winches) and “destornilladores” (screwdrivers).   A substantial Spanish vocabulary winds around the predictable layout: power tools, bench top tools, through clasps and clamps (woodworking), to abrasives and hammers, wrenches and sockets, pliers and screwdrivers, and measuring tools.  There’s a small section of odd garden tools.  “Home Accessories” contains a wheelchair and a walker. 

At the cash register the clerk rings up customers in English and answers the phone in Spanish.   She breaks in mid-sentence to offer Dennis an Inside Track Club membership.  Everyday he’d get a new product coupon.  I panic; he declines.  

Some friends tell me Harbor Freight stuff is crap.  But at my age, a life-time warranty holds no allure.  In contrast, entertainment is priceless.  Last year toward the end of summer Dennis came home with battery powered  fly swatter he’d gotten on sale for $3.99 (reg. $7.99).  We sat on the porch in a warm twilight sipping margaritas and swinging at mosquitoes.  Can’t beat Harbor Freight.

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