Industrial Supply Store

I spent several hours in warehouses today.

When you drive around the less-frequented parts of Auckland (bouncing along in my little truck-truck) it’s striking that there are so many of these small import companies sprawling through the industrial areas. They bring in all manner of items from the homeland (be that China, or India, or Bangladesh, or Fiji, etc), stack them precariously in leaky warehouses, and then wholesale them onward across New Zealand. The office staff are either older, sharp-eyed men who will try and upsell everything they can point to, or disinterested, coiffed young men who’d rather play on their phone than talk to you. They are possibly fathers and sons. The storemen speak little to no English, are perpetually confused, and seem to have little regard for safe loading of fork-hoists. It’s the basement furnace of free-trade capitalism.

After years of building events, I’m fairly comfortable and accustomed to shopping in industrial areas. I can haggle. It stands me in good stead – even amongst the men who are apparently bemused by serving someone like me.

But the ones I dig most are the big, industrial supply stores – with countertops bordered in black, greasy fingerprints, and an endless warehouse behind filled with shelves of little plastic bins, containing about 5 million different kinds of bolts. These stores always have the acrid odor of cut steel and engine oil. There is always (and I mean always!) harsh metal-halide lighting above, and a nudie calendar over the workbench, tucked somewhere down the back of the warehouse. The little shop radio is tuned to a hard-rock station. There is sometimes a coffee mug on the front counter, also covered with the ubiquitous black fingerprints.

At their worst, these places are staffed by grumpy, asocial, middle-aged (white) men who do nothing but patronize people like me (that is: short people with boobs). At their best, however, the male staff seem scared to have a small, bossy creature in high heels bouncing around between their shelves, rummaging through their bins, and calling out things like: “Do you have any 8-gauge karabiners?” and “Can I get this D-shackle in bright steel rather than galv?”

At their best, the beer-bellied clerks offer the model the roofing harnesses for me. They may then ring up the bill as “3-million dollars” and then give me a saucy wink and ask whether I’d like to buy a pallet-truck that they also have on special. Damn, I could’ve done with a pallet-truck when it came to loading out all of those damn floor tiles! Rob and I literally moved a ton of tiles in 15 mins, by hand. We are both familliar with manual labour.

In the city where I used to live I had developed a mental itinerary of local industrial suppliers to favor, and those to avoid. I never walked into a hardware store or warehouse without a difficult and peculiar project in mind. It’s the nature of my work. I ask lots of questions and offer odd problems for the staff to solve. I want to know whether I can turn that particular stock item inside-out and backwards in order to achieve the solution I need. And it is not every store that is able to handle such strange requests. I tended to stay away from the ones who didn’t listen, and the ones who treat me like I’m a moron. They got one chance and one chance only – or else my money walked elsewhere. But I returned regularly to the stores that find me an amusing distraction from their everyday overall-and-steelcap customers.

I will admit, I do own steelcap boots. However, I rarely wear them at any time other than heavy pack-ins. They are the most ludicrously small steelcaps I’ve ever seen! People laugh when they see my silly, tiny workboots – ordered specially from the catalog, and the smallest size available. I’m actually embarrassed to be seen in them – this little lady with her clumpy big-boy boots. However, a broken foot long ago taught me the value of good boots on a show-build. If push comes to shove, I also know the value of a braking strap on a decent safety harness.

So much of my world appears to be a glamorous mystery to those on the outside. But me? I just want a 6mm bright chain rated to 2000kg. 23 meters please. And that would need an etch primer, right? Tomorrow it’s going to be painted purple and coated in feathers…

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