|PAINT | 30 x 30 | Oil on canvas|
|Photograph: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun|
Bob Harris, son of local landmark paint retailer Ted Harris outside the landmark East Hastings store on the last day of business, Wednesday Sept. 30, 2009, in Vancouver, B.C.
By John Mackie, VANCOUVER SUN October 2, 2009
The Harris family has run a store at 757 East Hastings for nine decades.
No more. Bob Harris closed Ted Harris Paints Wednesday, 62 years after his father Ted made the switch from selling bicycles to paint. The younger Harris - also 62 - has decided to retire, and his sons David, Michael and Richard don't want to take over the business.
Which is sad, because Ted Harris Paints was one of Vancouver's last classic independent retailers, a throwback to the glory days of Hastings in the 1940s and 50s.
Harris picks up an old colour chart.
"Retro is in," he notes with a smile. "People look at this colour card and say - 'Wow! You're really on top of things to have a retro colour card!' What they don't know is that it's the colour card we used in the 1950s. We just brought it out and now we're using it again.
"People don't know what retro is until they come here," he laughs. "This is the real thing."
Indeed. Ted Harris Paints has been selling tints like Yukon Gold, Pearl Frost and Green Whisper since 1947. Even if they have never been inside the store, most Vancouverites remember the business for its giant neon sign, a landmark that blazes "paint" in multi-coloured letters - cream, teal, burnt orange, royal blue, and rusty red.
'Neath the neon is another sign that boasts "10 to 50 percent off!," with "comparative prices" in small print. To hammer the message home, the front of the building is a glorious hodge-podge of hand-written lettering reading "Ted Harris, Paints & Wallpaper, Wholesale and Retail." There's even a painting of a giant paintbrush.
The interior is just as cool, with an old-style high ceiling, banks of paint cans and a battery of paint mixers and shakers that look like they've been around since the industrial revolution.
The building dates to about 1910, a decade before Bob¹s grandfather Joseph Harris showed up from Montreal and opened up the East End Excellent Service Second Hand Store. (He's listed in an old city directory as a "junk pedlar," which was a common vocation for Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s - Joseph's birth name was Moishe Rosen.)
Joseph Harris died in 1926 and his wife Fannie married a man named Kaufman.
But the family fell on hard times during the depression, and Ted Harris and his two brothers were sent to an orphanage in Winnipeg.
Ted eventually came back to Vancouver, and by 1938 had taken over 757 East Hastings for a bicycle store. Legend has it you could rent one of his bikes for 15 cents an hour.
"They would rent them here because we were so close to Stanley Park," relates Bob Harris. "People would bring them back late sometimes, and would hammer on the door, because they didn¹t want to pay the rent the following morning."
This would work, because Ted Harris lived in the back of the store in an apartment he tacked on to the original building. There were another three apartments for rent upstairs. None of the apartments have been occupied for decades, but their tile kitchens and bathrooms with clawfoot tubs are intact.
Bob Harris lived in the back of the store until he was 10. The Strathcona neighbourhood - or the East End, to someone of Bob's vintage - was a far different place in those days.
"We used to go down down to the docks and get the turnips and potatoes when they fell off the conveyer belts transferring the food from the trains to the trucks," he recalls.
"We got a chicken once, a chicken got loose. We kept it in [my friend's] basement as a pet, until one day when they invited me over for chicken dinner. I had no idea I was eating my pet."
Ted Harris thrived in the paint business, even starting up his own line of Harritite and Ted Harris paints. Harris didn¹t actually make the paint - it came from a large manufacturer which allowed Harris to put his imprint on its product.
"They might make 2,000 gallons," says Bob Harris.
"The first 1,500 with their label, the last 500 gallons with our label. It's exactly the same product, we just sell it at a cheaper price."
Walking through the building with Bob is like taking a heritage tour. Up on a shelf in his office are some old bicycle tools from the 40s. Below them is an antique "partner's desk," which had two sides - the partners would face each other.
This one has been modified, however.
"When they became out of fashion 40 years ago, my dad took a chainsaw and sawed it in half," Bob says. "We still have the other half in another office."
He points out another ancient artifact, a five-foot-tall safe made by the Hall Safe Company of Cincinnati. The patent is from 1906, and the safe is used to this day.
"It can still hold money, so why not use it?" laughs Bob.
The basement is where he cut his teeth in the paint business, at the age of six.
"I used to sit down here and package dry colours," he says. "I used to get a 50 pound bag of raw sienna or whatever and repackage it in five pound bags. For a month after that I'd sneeze raw sienna or burnt umber or whatever I was packaging."
Hard work ran in the family. Ted Harris worked in the store until he died at the age of 88.
"He worked all his life here, pretty well," says Bob, who was an only child.
"One Friday while he was working in the store and he didn't feel very well. I took him to the hospital and he passed away two weeks later."
Bob has decided to take another path, retiring while he's still relatively young.
"We put a notice in the Vancouver Sun that we were retiring, and people came rushing in to buy [the remaining paint stock]," he says.
"Now it's almost all gone. A friend of mine phoned up today and said he wanted two quarts of paint, but I didn't have it. So I offered to give him a gallon for nothing. He said okay" - he pauses - "but he wanted me to deliver it to him."
What will happen to the landmark neon sign? Good question. Bob offered it to the Vancouver Museum, which has a neon sign collection, but it turned him down.
"They said it was too big, they just couldn't store it," he says.
"It would have been nice if it had went to the museum; it would have been something you could take your grandchildren to show them. But they're not interested."
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