The challenges of mixing paint and saying farewell

Luke Reiter––Here’s the Thing

You’d never know unless you tried it, but tinting paint can be a
stressful job. To start, you type your selected color––let’s say Grant
Beige­—into a computer, and it spits out a formula: B-4, L-1y16, T-16.
Then you take this cryptic code to the tint dispenser, which comprises
a rotating assortment of metal cylinders that look like something Flash
Gordon would use to hail an approaching spaceship. The increments in
which the tints are measured are so miniscule you may suspect some
ingredients are listed just to make you look busy. You keep on
suspecting this until you miss one and your Grant Beige turns into
Coconut Husk.

You’d never know unless you tried it, but tinting paint can be a stressful job. To start, you type your selected color––let’s say Grant Beige­—into a computer, and it spits out a formula: B-4, L-1y16, T-16. Then you take this cryptic code to the tint dispenser, which comprises a rotating assortment of metal cylinders that look like something Flash Gordon would use to hail an approaching spaceship. The increments in which the tints are measured are so miniscule you may suspect some ingredients are listed just to make you look busy. You keep on suspecting this until you miss one and your Grant Beige turns into Coconut Husk.

I was 16 when I got my first real job at Hardware Hank in Isanti. I remember the first few times I mixed paint I thought I’d drop the can because my palms were so sweaty. Bear in mind that on top of the rigors already mentioned, you’re being watched at almost every step by a deeply invested customer who is 36 hours into a project his wife keeps reminding him was supposed to be finished 168 hours ago, and he’s so consumed with frustration over miscalculating the square footage in the living room he hasn’t noticed the streaks from the last batch of Grant Beige all over his face and hair. All this to say, the margin for error is slim.

This was about all the stress in the workplace I could handle at 16. However on the rare occasion when I tapped the paint lid only three times with the rubber mallet instead of five, allowing it to come flying off in the shaker and create a Jackson Pollack-esque mess all over the interior, I took comfort knowing John Bettendorf, the store owner, would gracefully take the customer aside and explain the gallon had been lost due to some difficulty with the equipment, but a fresh can would be prepared rapidly.

There was a lot of patient explaining that John had to do during my first few weeks in the store, and the first few weeks after every other high school-aged employee was hired. He did it because he believed, despite all evidence to the contrary, that we could be competent, contributing members of his store and the community, and by golly he was going to fish that out of us no matter how encrusted the inside of his paint shaker became.

As many of you know, John will be closing Hardware Hank in March after a long struggle to stay afloat in a stormy economy. I remember the very first time I stepped into his office, knees knocking and sweat seeping into my best shirt, ready for John to interview me for the job. Two weeks ago I stepped into his office for the last time, and on this visit I was interviewing him for an article about the store closing down.

I was always mystified by John’s work ethic. I could never understand how he could manage such long hours, or remember the precise location of every galvanized pipe fitting, or how he knew the names of half the people in Isanti County. Although he was patient with us, he was passionate about the quality of service, and it upset him greatly if he felt a customer was not treated fairly. When I talked with John about this recently, he explained it to me simply: he worked hard because he genuinely enjoyed it.

At a newspaper convention last month I attended a seminar on covering the economy in which someone asked the instructor about the impact of losing local businesses. He replied the notion of supporting local businesses was a charming myth, and economically speaking it makes no difference where you shop.

Knowing little on the subject myself, I assume that instructor is probably right, economically speaking. But I know from my experience at Hardware Hank that people didn’t just come for pipe fittings or fertilizer, they came to chat with John about the copper market, or how they need their lawns to look good for graduation open house season. The institution of the local business is woven into the fabric of small communities in a way that not only serves them, but defines them.

I felt a pang as I stepped out of John’s office and into the back room of the store. I saw the desk where I used take my lunch breaks, the shift schedule on the wall I groused over, the receiving bay where one particular elderly employee told me some eye-opening stories of how he had long ago spent his free time as a sailor stationed in the far east.

John seems fairly upbeat about the whole thing­—as upbeat as possible, anyway. I wish the Bettendorf family well, and after talking with John and hearing how he’s approaching the liquidation process with the same verve he managed the store, I know he’ll do well no matter what comes next. My only concern is how he’ll sell a paint shaker that’s coated with Grant Beige inside.

 

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