For most Americans, Lee Valley Tools is a catalog filled with objects of lust for the workshop.
For Canadians, this lust also comes in the format of a retail store. And yes, this is worse.
Lee Valley Tools has 15 retail outlets in Canada, and they are quite different than the typical retail woodworking stores we have in the United States. This week I’m in Waterloo, Ontario, to visit and give some seminars during the opening of the company’s newest store.
(Note that I’m not being paid for my appearance here, and all proceeds from the seminars are donated to the United Way. Just FYI.)
The Lee Valley retail stores I’ve visited are always well-organized, brightly lit and (as far as I can tell) overstaffed to a fault. Despite the fact that the company specializes in hand tools, their stores are designed with modern lines. All the cabinetry and displays are sleek, clear-finished maple. Many of the items hang on a contemporary slat-wall system.
What is fundamentally different about the Lee Valley stores is that they function a lot like the hardware stores in the States in the 1950s. Instead of having all the products out on the shelves where you pick them out and take them to the register, all the stock is in the enormous warehouse behind the showroom.
So when you walk around the store, there is one of each tool out for display. You can ask one of the sales clerks for help in examining a tool, or you can just fill out an order form – either a paper for or on one of the computer terminals. Then the employees pull all your items from the warehouse and prepare your order.
It is both very old school and very modern.
As an American, it was cool to see stuff in the flesh that I’d only seen in the catalog. I’ve always wondered about the cast iron workbench legs (sweet), and the carver’s workbench (also cool). But I spent the most time in the hardware section of the store today. All the hardware in the Lee Valley catalog is out for you to inspect. You can feel the weight, examine the finish and get a feel for the scale of the hardware in a way that no catalog can deliver.
After poking around the store for a couple hours I gave a two-hour seminar about my latest tool chest – how it is designed and the tools that fill it.
I think it went OK. American humor doesn’t always go over well outside our borders. But no one threw anything or walked out, and that is the mark of a good class. I think.
Tomorrow I give a seminar on setting up shop. I can’t wait for this one because I’ve been working on this seminar for some time. It should upset some people.
— Christopher Schwarz