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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 10, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Clocks, Word of Mouth

We live in a disposable society. A lot of manufacturers make things a little shoddy, because if they made them the best they can, they'll go broke.

Two reasons for that. One is that their competitors can underprice them, and people who look at price alone -- people who want to brag on how cheaply they got something -- they'll buy the cheaper product while the good one stays on the shelf.

The bigger reason, though, is that if you make a thing really well, then it'll keep working for so long that by the time the customer needs to replace it, you'll be out of business.

But if you make it only pretty well, they'll like it, but it'll wear out in a couple of years, and then they'll buy it again.

That's the philosophy: Don't make it so well that you can't sell it again to the same customer because the first one they bought is still working.

Now, there's another philosophy that runs counter to that -- it's the one I appreciate more, I must admit: Make it so well that your customers tell their friends, and they'll buy your product and they'll keep you in business.

That's word of mouth. That's the advertising the means most.

When they run commercials that have "ordinary people" (i.e., good actors who look ordinary) tell you how good a thing is, that's what they're trying to fake.

But it's fake.

What I try to put in this column, week after week, is word of mouth. I don't get free stuff from the manufacturer. Every now and then I'll get an advance reading copy from a publisher, and every now and then I'll get a chance to see a screener of a movie ahead of time.

But when I review something, I don't get a crate of the product as a "thank-you," and if I did, I'd send it back.

One time in a review I mentioned that my wife liked one item made by a local company and I liked the other -- and the manufacturer sent us a box of the product my wife likes, along with a note of encouragement for her. That was just funny and we kept it and used it.

But when I tout local businesses, I'm not getting paid and I still pay full price for everything. Why? Because I want them to stay in business! I want to be able to keep shopping there or buying their services. So by telling you about them, I'm hoping you'll go and reach the same conclusion as me and spend your money there so they can stay in business and I can keep getting the thing I like so well.

In the realm of services, though, there's something else involved in word of mouth. When we were first married, we moved around a lot. From one city to another in Utah, and then to South Bend, Indiana, and then here. Each move meant trying to find new people to rely on.

Plumbers, electricians, home repairs, remodeling, and as we started earning a little more money (and got older so there were jobs we couldn't do ourselves anymore) we looked for housekeepers, yard guys, landscapers, someone to build and tend our backyard pond, paperhangers, painters, sound system installers, projection TV guys.

Not to mention all the right doctors and dentists and ... and now we look around and realize, we can't ever move, because we're just too old to want to start looking for all these people all over again.

Because we've got great people that we rely on absolutely. And we found them the hard way.

When we moved into our house twenty years ago, we needed to remodel the unfinished attic to turn one end into my office and the other into a spare bedroom and storage space.

We found a contractor and things started well but pretty soon we found out that he was charging materials at Lowe's, and taking the advance money we gave him to pay for those things and putting it up his nose. He'd be "sick" for a few days and then he'd be back asking for more advance money.

Of course we fired him and got someone else to finish the job. But things like that do happen -- they're bound to happen. So one of the things I try to do with this column is tell you about people that do great work.

For instance: Our mantel clock.

We don't actually put fires in our fireplace -- we pay for air conditioning and heating and we've found that fires, while amusing for a while, don't really do anything except entertain us, and we'd rather read a book.

But fireplaces look great, and we put things on the mantel, and one of the best things in our living room is the mantel clock.

The first one we put there had chimes, but after a few years it died. We tried to get someone to repair it but couldn't find anybody who was willing to do the work.

On a trip to Asheville, though, we found a great store with some real treasures -- we got a set of pasta dishes there that are works of art, and in the same store we also found a mantel clock that we absolutely loved.

The flat base of it has a checkerboard pattern; the clock stands over it on four wooden columns, and a pendulum swings between the base and the clock. That pendulum has a shiny disc that reflects the checkerboard, so it's hypnotic to watch it swing back and forth.

It ran for fifteen years without a hitch. And then this year as we changed to daylight savings time, it just stopped. The pendulum still swung, but the hands didn't move.

I assumed that we'd have to replace the inner works -- you know how most clocks are, with the works inside a sealed box. No repair is possible. You just replace the box.

So we went to Norm & Sons Clock Repair. He works out of a private home at 5200 Lawndale -- you can call him at 286-0430. He had done some work on another clock and we knew he was reliable and heck, how many clock repair services are there? Most people just throw the old clock away and start over.

In fact, assuming that no repair would actually work, I even ordered a replacement mantel clock online. What came was such a piece of junk that it stopped working in five days.

Meanwhile, though, Norm & Sons had our mantel clock. Here's what happened.

He ordered replacement workings for the clock, as we requested, but he couldn't find anything that would work with the pendulum -- the slot didn't line up properly with the beautiful clock casing.

But he didn't just return it to us, telling us that it couldn't be done. No, he took the old clockworks and cleaned and filed every connection. He spent a lot of time on it, and then, when he got the hands to move again, he kept it for a few days to make sure it was keeping true time.

Then he called us, and when we came to pick it up, you know what he charged us? Thirty bucks.

He had spent serious time on this clock. He had put real care into it. He had refused to give up when a lot of other people would have. He knew we loved that clock, he knew that we could never replace it, and so when he gave it back to us in working order, he could have charged us anything.

Well, I paid him more than he asked but I still felt like I was cheating him a little, because his work was worth so much to us.

Now, if anyone asks me, "Who repairs clocks?" of course I'd tell them about Norm & Sons. But most people don't even ask that question because we live in a disposable society.

So I'm telling you preemptively. If you have a clock you really like, and it stops working, don't just give up and buy some piece of shoddy work designed to fail so you'll buy it again. At least let Norm & Sons give it a try. Maybe he can't fix it -- sometimes you just can't, and that's fine. But if it can be fixed, he'll fix it, and he won't charge you an arm and a leg to do it.

Just remember I told you about him, and when the need arises, Google "Rhinoceros Times" and "clocks" and I bet you'll get send right to this column, where you can see the address and phone number of Norm & Sons.

*

But that isn't my only clock story. Out at New Garden Nursery on Old Oak Ridge Road, we saw a freestanding outdoor clock that was perfect for our patio. I gave it to my wife for our anniversary a few years ago, and we loved it.

It looked great, and it was useful. I could be outside gardening, glance up, and keep track of time without wearing a watch that would get covered with dirt. I could take a little sun in the summertime and even without my glasses I could keep track of how long I'd been lying there listening to an audiobook while getting baked to a turn.

And then last fall -- once again while changing from daylight savings time (why do we put up with this nonsense? Just make daylight savings time year-round and have done with it!) -- the clock stopped running.

It happened that our regular remodeling guy, the contractor Tim Davis of Time Davis Home Improvement (697-1463) was there working on another project, and I told him about the broken clock, and he said, "I know a guy."

Now, when Tim Davis knows a guy, what he means is: I know a guy who is really good at his job -- so good that I'll stand behind the job he does.

When Tim saw that our outdoor wooden benches were getting way too weathered, he suggested that we get them refinished and sealed so they'd hold up better. "I know a guy," he said. It took a few weeks, but the benches look better than new and they're holding up great in sun and rain.

Same thing with stonework, concrete pouring, fence installation -- whenever Tim says, "I know a guy," the work gets done right, and Tim stands behind it all the way.

Not only that, Tim makes sure of what kind of people he brings to our home. He once worked with a contractor who did excellent work -- but brought the wrong attitude to Tim's customers' homes. The fellow just wasn't respectful. He'd use bad language. He'd tread through flowerbeds; he just didn't show respect for other people's property.

Tim talked to him about it, but the man made it very clear that he had no intention of changing his attitude. So Tim doesn't call on him anymore. Yes, he did good work and Tim could stand behind it -- but Tim doesn't bring somebody to your house who isn't going to treat your property with respect, or who isn't going to maintain a decent level of dignity in your homespace.

Anyway, I tell Tim about our patio clock and mourn a little, because I had actually been looking for a good outdoor clock for a long time before I found this one, and I really didn't think it was going to be reparable.

"I know a guy," says Tim, and so the clock gets taken away in Tim's truck.

A couple of weeks later, there it is, back again on our patio. It looks better than new. Not only is the clock running, but all the seams are sealed and it's going to last a lot longer this time around before it needs another repair.

We were delighted, and happily paid Tim for the work his guy did on the clock.

So today, as I was preparing to write about Norm & Sons, I thought it was only right to mention Tim's clock guy, too. So I called Tim and asked him for the name and contact information so I could pass it along.

"Um, I can tell you who did that, yes sir," said Tim. He sounded a little embarrassed. "It was me."

What? I thought you knew a guy, Tim!

"Well I did. But like you said, chances are he couldn't repair it, and there was going to be a pretty steep charge just to have him look at it."

Now, I don't mind those service-call minimum charges. I understand that time is money, so that would have been fine with me, to pay just to find out that it couldn't be repaired.

But Tim figured, why not find out first if a simple cleaning might not do the job, without bothering the clock expert? So Tim took it apart in his own shop, cleaned everything, fitted it together more tightly, resealed it all, and then ran the clock for a week to make sure it was keeping good time.

Then he brought it back.

No wonder his clock guy worked so cheaply -- it was Tim himself!

So Tim Davis did exactly the same thing that Norm & Sons did. Knowing that we really valued that particular clock, he worked hard to clean it and shine it up and redo all the connections, and it worked.

But you're not a clock guy, Tim, I said.

It's just how Tim was raised. "My grandfather -- if I tore anything up, he'd help me fix it -- but he'd make me fix it. And my father always said, If you take your time, there's nothing you can't accomplish, it you put your mind to it."

I guess that's just how they raised kids in Mount Airy back in the fifties and sixties when Tim was growing up there.

But I'm not even surprised. Tim always treats every job I've seen him do as if it were his own house, as if he were going to be living for the next twenty or thirty years with the consequences of his decisions on the job.

"Sometimes I get carried away and go to an extreme," Tim says, "but if you treat your customers as if it's your own house, you never have to look over your shoulder."

It's a matter of integrity for Tim. It's not a job he's doing, it's a job he's doing, if you get the distinction. Who he is is always on the line. If he says he's going to do a thing, it's going to get done, and done right.

He told me a story about his father that explained why Tim cares so much about being a man of his word. When Tim's mother's father died, his farm went up for auction. She says to Tim's father, "I want to raise my kids here on my dad's homeplace."

So he goes to the bank that's handling the auction and he says, "I don't have a down payment, sir, but I want to buy this farm for my wife. She wants to raise our kids there."

This was another day and time, mind you, because that banker said, "Mr. Davis, I know who you are. Your word is good enough for me. I know you'll make the payments." The farm was his. Those payments were made. Those kids were raised there. But it was only possible because even as a young man, everyone knew that he was as good as his word.

Money comes and goes -- the economy can take away your job, or your trade can just disappear no matter how hard you worked at it. That's how the world works. There are things that just aren't under your control. But your integrity -- that's completely under your control. That's what you decided to be, and the economy can't take that away from you.

We live in a pretty impersonal world now. The banker really can't lend you the money to buy the family farm -- he's got to follow rules so he doesn't lose his job if things go south. You go to a big box store and maybe you will and maybe you won't find somebody there who knows what he's talking about. The next time you go, you won't be talking to the same person, likely as not.

That's just how it is. Mostly.

But there are still pockets of the old ways. It's one of the reasons I go to small stores when I can, and return to the same restaurants again and again. I want to know people and I want them to know me, so they realize that I'm more than just a walk-in customer, I'm somebody they're going to see over and over -- if they do good work.

I learned this as a missionary in Brazil. There was a great ice cream shop we went to -- like Gnam Gnam in Greensboro today, they made every speck of their sorvete on the premises, using their own recipes.

There were other ice cream shops in town, but this one was one of the best and it became our regular stop. And because we were there week after week, they got to know us. They made batches of our favorite flavors for us. We talked and got to know each other. And I realized that because we were regular customers, we got a lot more than ice cream -- coming to that shop felt like coming home.

Tim Davis lives the same way. He grew up in a small town where everybody would stop in at the general store, sit around the pot-bellied stove for a spell, and talk to each other, keep in touch with the neighborhood.

Well, you're not going to do that at Harris-Teeter or Kerr Drugs or Lowe's, even though those are good stores that I shop at all the time.

But Tim Davis told me about L&O Auto Body Repair in McLeansville (5201 Burlington Rd.), run by Larry Overbey, because even though it's a place where hard work is going on, it's also like that old general store.

"You drive by, and if you see your buddy's vehicle in the parking lot, you stop in a chew the fat for a few minutes," says Tim.

He recently joked that it was so much like the old general store, he was going to find a pot-bellied stove for them to all sit around.

"You aren't bringing a pot-bellied stove in here," Larry warned him.

But they don't need the stove. They've got all they need without it.

Tim talks about Larry Overbey. "Some of the older folks living around here, they'll knock off a mirror backing out of the garage, and Larry puts it back on, doesn't charge them for a little thing like that."

"I needed something, I've never had Larry tell me no," says Tim. "He does good work and charges a fair price, but he also goes the extra mile, goes out of his way to help people."

Men like Tim Davis hang out at Larry's body shop because they know and respect Larry Overbey, and he knows and respects them. They're the same kind of people. They share the same values.

We may live in modern, big-city times, but the fact is that at the human level, we haven't changed. We still want to be with people we trust. People who keep their word.

Which is why Tim told me about Larry Overbey. And why I'm telling you about Tim Davis. You don't go to them to save a buck -- though their prices are fair. You go to them because you value a job done well, and because you know they keep their word.


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