Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Visit to a Lee Valley Store

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

15 thoughts on “A Visit to a Lee Valley Store

  1. ceebee2001

    We visit two different stores, one an hour and a half from home and one three hours away. Hubby is like a kid in a Candy store. The one thing I absolutely love about the store is the nice comfy leather chairs. When we go to LV I take my travel mug and ereader and after I’m done shopping Hubby can have all the time in the world to shop. Wish more stores Hubby liked were like LV.

  2. d_lamb@shaw.ca

    Chris,
    Glad you could make it up to the Great White North! I sure wish you would visit more of their stores (I’m sure you would love to visit Calgary during the Stampede in July!) Your new seminar sounds intriguing…I’d love to hear more!

  3. andrewr79

    Fifteen specialist woodworking stores sounds like a lot to someone who’s got access to basically one chain and with those only one store per 500km or so!. We don’t have access to the walk-in variety of woodworking supplies here in most parts of Australia, so I’m very grateful for online shopping and companies like Lee Valley who make good gear available to the rest of the world.

    Andrew

    1. d_lamb@shaw.ca

      Andrewr79,
      Andrew, you have stores every 500km? Being Canadian, I am of course in the land of Lee Valley, and living in Calgary we are lucky enough to have one of the 15 stores here, but there is a lot more than 500km to the next one! The next closest store would be a 3hr drive, and the one after than would be closer to 8hrs away! (around 1500km!) It would be great if Lee Valley decided to go the route of franchising the chain, but I can definitely understand why they don’t…you don’t want to expand too rapidly, or you endanger your ability to supply quality tools!

  4. Dean

    It sure would be nice if the Popular Woodworking website would set up a picture viewer that allows seeing multiple pictures as a series (just keep clicking next or an arrow). It would keep the user on the same webpage without having to arrow back every time they want look at another picture. Just click on close or exit, or hit the Esc key and it removes the viewer, and you’re back on the blog page which stays in the background while viewing pictures. This is not the same as sending the user to a site like “flickr” which allows slide show type viewing. Maybe this is something that can only be done in forums and can’t be done in a blog. Just thought I would ask anyway. Thank you.

  5. ThisOldMoose

    Welcome to Canada, Chris. I guess a trip to Waterloo is in order soon, I’ve been to every other Ontario store. I compare Lee Valley Stores to some of the big book stores with all the varnished shelves and carpeted floors, and the classical music in the background. Are there any more seminars at other stores in your future?

    Bob

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