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March 28, 2008  |  Houses: TCO  |  8628 hit(s)

David Owen, an author I particularly like (and an alum of The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harpers, and Golf Digest[1]), years ago wrote an article on sheetrock (that is, Sheetrock[2]), which he expanded into the book The Walls Around Us, accurately subtitled "The Thinking Person's Guide to How a House Works." I've read the book multiple times, and I've pressed copies of it onto every homeowner I know (not always with the success of an appreciative recipient, alas). Even with the Great Purging of Books 'round here, I still have, like, three copies of it on the shelf.

Owen's interest in houses and home improvement did not end with that book, and he expanded some subsequent writings about houses into the book Sheetrock and Shellac[3]. This book describes, among other things, his adventures in building a cabin, a topic of some interest to me at the moment.

David Owen is the writer I'd like to be when I grow up. On every page I find stuff that makes me poke the person closest by and read out loud to them. At the moment, you're that person. Listen to this, a story that I'll pick up in medias res:
Replacing the pump and controller, and adding a "lightning arrester" to the well, cost roughly a thousand dollars, a sum I soon began to think of, in connection with home-repair disasters, as a "unit." A unit was a depressingly large amount of money to surrender to solve a problem that I hadn't known I needed to worry about, yet a unit, I noticed, seemed to be pretty much the minimum charge for anything that went wrong with a house. If, the day before the well disaster, my closest friend had asked to borrow a thousand dollars to pay for emergency medical care for his child, I would have explained, in desolation, that I just didn't have the money. Yet here I was, giving that same thousand dollars to a plumber. Our house was somehow able to find money we didn't know we had, and suck it from its hiding place before we'd had a chance to recognize it as ours. You buy a house for more than you can afford; then, almost immediately, the house forces you to spend even more money, generally on parts of it you didn't know it had. As my friend Jim, who also owns an old house, once told me, "If I'd known I could afford to spend this much on a house, I'd have bought a nice one to begin with."
When the mom and I bought our first house in 1985, we tootled to the home-improvement store constantly[4], of course, and soon concluded that the house was costing us, on average, $100 every weekend. We didn't actually spend $100 each week; sometimes we dribbled, but we made up for that with the occasional cash hemorrhage. These days, it's more like $300 per weekend.

More Owen coming soon. I'm only on Chapter 1.

[1] Truly.

[2] E (8th grader) asked the other day with a vaguely peeved tone, "Is it true that 'Dumpster' is capitalized?" True.

[3] I am apparently in an etymologically footnoting mood. Shellac is a natural substance: "Shellac is a brittle or flaky secretion of the lac insect Kerria lacca, found in the forests of Assam and Thailand." (#) Just so you know.

[4] For you olde-tyme Seattle folks, that was mostly Ernst, which along with Lamont's, was the "anchor store" for the sad old version of Westwood Village. :-)

Kim   28 Mar 08 - 12:22 PM

Re. 4: Ernst and Lamonts likewise anchored the seedy incarnation of University Village, where now you can't throw a cell phone without hitting a trophy wife pushing a thousand-dollar stroller.

Do you remember Ernst's garden-store sibling, Malmo? A friend of mine used both names as epithets/interjections: "Oh, ERNST!" when you were pissed off, and "Malmo!" in surfer-y tones, in approximately the same context as "awesome."

mike   28 Mar 08 - 12:36 PM

The U Village Ernst was in fact practically my introduction to Seattle. Very shortly after I arrived in town in 1979, I attended some sort of home show (why? I was years from owning a house) and picked up a handful of coupons for stuff at Ernst. I was living on Capitol Hill at the time, so U Village was my shopping center of choice. I believe that Lamont's was where Barnes & Noble is now, and Ernst approximately where Pottery Barn is, innit? Just like the Westwood Village Ernst was replaced by Staples, and Lamont's by -- hey, wait a minute! -- Barnes & Noble.

I never quite got why the gardening department at Ernst was named separately for a Swedish city. One-time merger, perhaps?

Note also the spooky observation that at that selfsame 1979 home show, Jean Enerson was signing autographs. Talk about ageless. Hmmm.

Kim   31 Mar 08 - 12:57 PM

Yes to all the above observations re. U. Village. Long before I owned a home, I was purchasing horrible pressboard bookcases at Ernst--the tab A/slot B kind, no hardware of any sort required!

As to the renowned Ms. Enersen, I suspect rather a lot of sheetrock and shellac might also be holding her together these days.