This is a story I wrote for The Rake magazine in the Twin Cities a few years ago. I loved that magazine, and they were kind enough to publish a few of my pieces. And I really wish they had Ax-Mans around these parts!!
THE HAPPY EXECUTIONER
Ax-Man Slashes Prices on God Knows What
There is but one person for whom my father might leave his wife of 52 years. Ax-Man. The first time he drove past its original location on University Avenue in St. Paul, some thirty years ago, he pulled over immediately. He becomes radiant to recall it: “I was overcome – I didn’t know where to look. Finally, I calmed down, got a hold of myself and started looking.”
You have not known stuff until you’ve know Ax-Man Surplus Store. More than a surplus store, not quite a dollar store – though a dollar goes far – it’s a little bit thrift shop with some art gallery thrown in. On any given day, Ax-Man is marbles, vacuum tubes, wading boots and crime scene tape – and French mess kits, haz-mat suits and plastic bottles of every shape and size, for starters.
“No one needs our stuff,” owner Jim Segal admits. And yet, Ax-Man is mesmeric, luring artists, tinkerers, inventors, do-it-yourselfers, handymen, hobbyists and the curious to its three metro locations. They are looking for something just so.
Like many Ax-Man disciples, my father is part craftsman, part artist, mostly do-it-yourselfer. The day we visited, there were barrels and bins and crates and boxes of gemstones, wheels, bowling pins, magnets, gas masks, leather scraps, home alarm key pads – and doll limbs of various skin tones. The giant phone – 8’x10’ – is not for sale, but plastic brains can be had for $19.95. There were Beetle Bailey lunch pails if one was so inclined, wrapping paper, and bullets in various stages of rusting. My Pop poked at stuff, bounced small objects in his palm, and examined everything through his bifocals. “Usually I don’t even know what I’m looking for, but if I see what I’m looking for, I’ll know it.”
Sometimes Segal doesn’t even know what the stuff is. His philosophy is that it doesn’t matter: “The customer comes up with how it should be used.” Many items are broken down and sold individually by the component parts. “I love seeing the creative process at work with the customers – when they don’t rely on preconceived notions about what a thing should be used for.”
Segal has a business degree from the University of St. Thomas and doesn’t consider himself particularly creative. “But I like the idea of creativity,” he says. That’s why he lets the staff create the signs for the merchandise, a perk in an otherwise routine retail job, he admits. Art unto itself, the signage usually consists of sassy dialogue pasted onto photos from old magazines. On the shelves that display various mugs and glasses is the iconographic photo of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin seated at the conference of Yalta. Someone’s smart-alec take has talk bubbles emerging from their mouths. Roosevelt: “Can you believe Churchill showed up hammered again?” Stalin: “Da, da.”
Segal, who bought the business in 2001 and is its third owner, is circumspect about where they get the stuff. “Sure, I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you”, he says. This much he’ll say: it comes from basements, warehouses, manufacturers with leftover parts, and trade shows. “We want to give a second chance to something,” he says.
Like flashcubes. Segal describes discovering a pallet of flashcubes at a car parts distributorship, those little glass sparkly cubes used with old Instamatics. Ax-Man now has a lifetime supply. Caught up in the spirit of the place – and a little woozy from the polyurethane gas-off – I suggested over-enthusiastically, “Christmas tree ornaments! Earrings! Pretend ice cubes!” The inventory is peripatetic, to be sure. Ax-Man admonishes, “Buy today, it may be gone tomorrow”.
We leave with armfuls of small wheels that my father will use for the toy trucks he makes for the grandchildren. His favorite purchase ever was a very large porcelain hand which stands upright from the elbow in a graceful twist, perhaps once a glove display in a department store of bygone days. “My vision was to use it for a display for your mother’s jewelry,” he grumbles. But mother was disturbed by the shiny disembodied hand emerging straight up from the dresser like the end of “Carrie”. Instead, he uses it to hang wet rags and gloves in his workshop.
Dusty and paint-splattered from his workshop, my father is still in a trance. Hands hooked on his tool belt, he gazes off wistfully to some distant past where he himself might have been the boss of all that stuff. “It’s a young man’s game, I guess, but that would have been a fun business. I would have loved digging through all that crap every damn day.”