Away from the Register

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Inside the entrance of Saffron Supply Company. Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

Saffron owner Rick Gassner takes a call from a customer. Photo by Frank Miller.

Gassner heads back toward a storage area across the alley to look for a product. Photo by Frank Miller.

Gassner searches for a bathtub/shower stall requested by a contractor. Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

Photo by Frank Miller.

It’s a Friday morning in downtown Salem, springtime, and two men inside Saffron Supply Company are considering PVC pipe.

For a minute they chat at each other through a pegboard wall hung with glistening wrenches and screwdrivers. Guy One, the customer, is looking for the bins full of white PVC elbows and nipples, the kind that transfer shower water from drains at our feet to sewer lines somewhere we usually don’t have to look. Guy Two, an employee, apparently having gone to the next aisle to check on a related part, walks over to talk it through.

Both are middle-aged, soft-spoken. Outside on the loud Commercial Street, someone trots by hauling a very large coffee, but in the store, no one is in a hurry.

The customer plugs a couple of fittings together, checking that a small section of a pipe is a snug fit inside the end of a 90-degree elbow, just like it should be. A thin bead of glue called pipe dope will eventually fuse the two plastic pieces together, making for a rigid, watertight seal good for a couple of decades at least.

“Yeah, that system will last you for years,” says the employee, who never offers his name — maybe because the customer already knows it. Inspecting the joint, he appears comforted that another house might end up well-plumbed.

Outside on the loud Commercial Street, someone trots by hauling a very large coffee, but in the store, no one is in a hurry.

In the brief silence that follows, both men are probably rehearsing the installation in their heads, envisioning the new functionality. After a few seconds the customer concludes, “Okay, that’ll work for me, then.”

There’s the rattle of more plastic components in bins as the customer finds the parts he’ll need for another joint down the line, and the employee drifts off toward another odd job restacking or helping someone else. He throws back a hard-to-hear last comment about that pipe dope, and then it goes quiet again inside the store.

In these two minutes, the quintessential American hardware-store transaction has taken place.

***

Saffron Supply Company didn’t start as a full-service hardware store. It began in 1910 by selling washboards and logging hooks — the ferocious-looking kind with the pointed ends used for grabbing felled tree trunks and branches — and its eventual form as a business was probably as much a reflection of the personalities in charge of it as it was a market need.

It was founded by a pragmatic man named Isaac Saffron, though Salem locals today are more familiar with Isaac’s son, Morris. “Morrie” Saffron, who ran the place for more than 65 years, was an old-school gentleman, the type who, as his obituary noted in 2009, would call a restaurant to tell them that they had forgotten to charge his credit card for lunch.

Born in 1914, he was also of the generation that popularized local country clubs, and he became well-known socially outside the downtown-Salem business context. Family members recall that he had made sure to join a club without any prohibitions against blacks or Jews or anyone else, since those rules, even if they were unwritten, remained sneakily prevalent for decades. He was a member at Illahe Hills Country Club for many years, and today people throw around adjectives like “gracious” and “unfailing” to describe the way he treated people.

Saffron served in the Army during World War II, landing in Normandy just after the invasion, and he nearly got lost at sea on his return trip to the States when his liberty ship, the Joseph Hooker (named after the noted Union Army general whose polished career was marred by a notorious defeat against Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville), took on water and barely sloshed its way into New York Harbor.

Despite a war’s worth of ordeals, Saffron, like thousands of others, quietly returned when the Army was done with him to where he’d begun: laboring to make Saffron Supply into the local institution it was poised to be. He’d talk openly about the war later on, but mostly he seemed to focus on the present and the future.

Rick Gassner, Morrie’s nephew, runs the shop today. The third of four generations to work at the store so far, he looks younger than his 63 years and already employs his son, Aaron, now 36, who assists with the management and will presumably take over once Rick retires. The elder Gassner is a conversationalist and seems a good fit for the store’s personal-touch business model; he’s as good at listening as he is at telling stories or explaining how to thread galvanized steel pipe.

The store he manages, an almost copper-colored front just south of the Union Gospel Mission shelter, is much more expansive than it first appears. Make it back past the main aisles and the stairs to the upper story, and you’ll find a pipe yard and vast, ceiling-high shelves of back stock (including thousands of PVC elbows). Masses of tools, worn cardboard bins and bare concrete make the space feel broken in. Labels and signage are as likely to be someone’s handwriting on an old square of paper as they are something laminated or printed.

The store’s administrative heart is upstairs from the main floor and set back quite a ways from the street entrance. The offices are all lined with thin, dark-wood paneling that has obviously been there a while. The hues darken the space, and the rooms are spare. But it doesn’t feel cold or sterile — probably because of the men and women who sit at the desks, typing and calendaring and ordering and troubleshooting together. If anything, the mood of the space feels vaguely familial.

Gassner says the business approach hasn’t changed much over the years, and these days that might be what makes the place distinctive. In today’s vernacular, he says, it’s related to the “buy local” impulse. There’s much talk of the “big-box stores,” the Home Depots of the world that most people seem to expect will roll over places like Saffron. Except that it hasn’t happened.

Gassner shows only passing worry for them, choosing instead to talk about how there’s still room in the marketplace for different approaches. It begins to seem as if the old-fashioned nature of places like Saffron — the personal touch, the casualness, the lack of frills — is less a liability and more of what Gassner might call useful market differentiation.

“People come here to talk to people,” he says. Patrons and staff get to know each other, and they appreciate problem solving alongside one another. For Gassner, this means that the end product is different than at other businesses: It includes the experience of finding a solution or, if you’re one of the many private contractors who routinely make Saffron their first stop, a dependable office away from the office.

Patrons and staff get to know each other, and they appreciate problem solving alongside one another.

Gassner reminds people that they’ll never have to push a red button and wait five minutes at the end of an aisle to get help in his store. And while many assume that this kind of approach means a higher markup on price because of the manpower required, Gassner says it isn’t so.

He perks up with talk of new media — Facebook, blogging, websites — because that type of savvy is something his son brings to the table. It’s clear that Saffron is currently in the adoption phase: A Google search brings up a basic website that mostly describes the shop’s priorities rather than pushing people toward online shopping or other features. The most striking bit of content is a paragraph pointing out that many of Saffron’s employees have been with the business for at least 20 years.

Still, it’s obvious that new media and related initiatives represent a peculiar challenge for a place like this, since it can seem odd to invigorate a company that relies on in-person relationship-building by using tools that, by their nature, feel like the opposite of that. “We keep evolving,” Gassner says, with a tone that’s mostly optimistic, “while also remembering to focus on that niche where we fit in.”

The PVC pipe parts are on the way toward the door. Those elbows, it turns out, cost $1.03 each. If Saffron Supply teaches Salem residents anything, it might be that the most important transaction that takes place here — the productive, collegial dissemination of know-how — happens well away from the cash register.

Erik Schmidt is a Salem-based editor and writer who worked for four years at a small hardware store in Belfair, Wash. He is currently writing a nonfiction book about World War II fighter ace Erich Hartmann.

Originally from Iowa, Frank Miller came to Oregon via Japan, Texas and Buffalo, N.Y. His personal and professional photography can be viewed at www.fmillerphotography.com