December 01, 2006

Origin of the Bookstore, Part the Second - The Tale of Minwax Golden Oak and Diamond Finish

For the next eleven months we'll be doing a special feature each month in honor of Borderlands' upcoming 10th Anniversary (November 3rd, 2007).  We'll share some stories about what Borderlands is and how it got that way.

The Tale of Minwax Golden Oak and Diamond Finish

Many years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Alan Beatts decided to open a book store.  The Alan Beatts then was not like the Alan Beatts you see now.  He was younger.  He had darker hair, more energy, and a deep-seated aversion to sleeves.  He also didn't know much at all about woodworking.

But he needed shelves if he was going to have a bookstore.  Lots of shelves.

In the course of a month, he managed to get shelves.  About twenty-five of them.  All tall and all unfinished.  And that's where the problem began.

Anyone who has refinished a coffee table knows how it goes.  You sand, then you might put on some kind of stain, and then you add a few coats of some sort of sealer.  Wait for it to dry and you're done.  It's a nice little bit of handyman work that'll take up a few hours some weekend.  But, a good sized coffee table has perhaps 3 or 4 square feet of surface.  Twenty-five tall bookshelves have a bit more surface.

A lot more surface, actually.  Like ten times more surface.  Per shelf.  Times twenty-five shelves.

Alan did a little math and realized he was in hell.

So he went looking for some expert advice.  Looking through the phone book (remember, back then the internet wasn't quite as useful as it is now), he found a company in town that advertised, "Everything for professional wood finishing".  When he chatted with the owner (who didn't seem very friendly or terribly helpful but he was a professional -- the sign outside said so) and explained the situation, the solution was clear: "gel stain and wax," said the professional.  A large check was written, warnings about "no returns" were stated, and less than an hour later the finishing began.  And then stopped almost immediately.

Gel stain is great stuff.  It doesn't splash, dries quickly, and goes on evenly.  But (and this is a big but), it's a goo.  It has to be rubbed on.  And it's a really big pain to get into inside corners (of which a tall bookshelf has 34).  Call professional.

"It's really hard to get the stain into the corners."


"What do I do?"

"Try using a Q-Tip."

" . . . . "

"So long."

Much brooding ensued.  "There is no way that I'm going to finish twenty-five blankity-blank bookshelves with a blanking Q-Tip," thought Alan to himself.  By way of distraction while thinking about the problem, he read the instructions for the wax which was meant to follow the stain -

"Rub on"

"Buff vigorously when dry"

"Re-coat every six months to a year . . . RE-COAT every SIX MONTHS to a YEAR!!!!"

"@&%##&@!  &%$#@& professional!  I'll $@#&%$&* him in front of his family and then &&%@#^&^!"

More brooding.  And then Alan called his bank.  Then he called the professional and told him that the stain and wax would be returned tomorrow.

"We don't take returns.  I told you that."

"I know.  You're going to this time.  I stopped the check.  Don't bother trying to deposit it."

" . . . . "

"So long."

The next day, materials returned, Alan went looking for another solution.  He remembered one of the people who he had talked with when he was first looking for shelves.  This guy had run a bookstore until he realized that selling bookshelves was more profitable (what this means about the book business is an exercise best left to the reader).  A quick phone call revealed that there was a product that went on quickly and dried very fast.  And, as a matter of fact, the bookshelf guy had a bunch on hand that he'd be happy to sell for a reasonable price.  He gotten it for a big project but later decided that lacquer wasn't the right finish to use.  Arrangements were made to pick up several gallons the next day.

That evening while chatting over a beer with friends, the story of the wood finishing was told.  When the new finish, this "lacquer" stuff was mentioned, one of the people around the table, a motorcyclist named Johnny, blanched and asked if Alan had ever used this stuff.

"No, but it seems pretty simple.  And the best part is how fast it dries."

"Yeah, that's one of the reasons they sometimes call it 'flash'.  I don't think you should use that stuff."


"It's too dangerous.  You'll blow yourself up."


"That stuff is really, really, flammable.  Pretty much one spark when you've been working with it for a while and the fumes'll send you to Jesus.  In pieces.  That's the other reason they call it 'flash'.  I'm surprised you could find any.  The state is trying to ban it."


Risk is sometimes a subjective thing.  One person's "too dangerous" isn't always the same as someone else's.  But, Johnny had an interesting relationship with the concept of "dangerous".  For example he is perhaps the only person on the planet to have accidentally cut a Nissan pickup truck in half.  With a motorcycle.  It seems that at 80 miles per hour a Suzuki GS1100 is capable of actually severing the frame of a light pickup truck when it impacts at 90 degrees right behind the cab.  Johnny commented later that it didn't seem too dangerous to be going that fast.  After all it was a side road and there wasn't any traffic.

The next day Alan just didn't bother to show up to get the lacquer.

Time for plan C.  Discount Builders' Supply is an example of a vanishing breed.  It's a huge independent hardware store right near highway 101 in the middle of San Francisco.  That's hard enough to find these days but even more unusual, 'Da Builders (as we call it) pays a good wage and has an older staff who pretty much know everything about their specialty.  There is no telling how many people they have educated over the years, but that day Alan became one of them.

The lady in the paint department listened to the whole story, asked a few questions and said, "Try a Minwax stain.  You can brush it on and it dries overnight.  Then used a water-based sealer.  They dry in about six hours and there aren't any fumes to worry about.  You'll have to use a few coats but that's the best way to go."

And that's how it worked.  It took just over a week of working 12 to 14 hours a day but at the end all the shelves were done.  With encouragement from Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits it wasn't even hell.  A long job, sure, but not hell.

The shelves looked really good.

And they still do.  The original shelves are still in use nine years later.  After a move and several different layouts, they make up the large rolling shelves in the middle of the store.  And they've never been refinished.

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