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ted harris paint


Ted Harris Paint and Wallpaper
757 East Hastings


Ted Harris Paints: An icon closes on Hastings street

John Mackie
Thursday, October 1st, 2009

The Harris family has run a store at 757 East Hastings for nine decades.

No more. Bob Harris closed Ted Harris Paints Wednesday, 62 years after his father Ted made the switch from selling bicycles to paint. The younger Harris – also 62 – has decided to retire, and his sons David, Michael and Richard don’t want to take over the business.

Which is sad, because Ted Harris Paints was one of Vancouver’s last classic independent retailers, a throwback to the glory days of Hastings in the 1940s and 50s.

Harris picks up an old colour chart.

"Retro is in," he notes with a smile. "People look at this colour card and say – ‘Wow! You’re really on top of things to have a retro colour card!’ What they don’t know is that it’s the colour card we used in the 1950s. We just brought it out and now we’re using it again.

"People don’t know what retro is until they come here," he laughs. "This is the real thing."

Indeed. Ted Harris Paints has been selling tints like Yukon Gold, Pearl Frost and Green Whisper since 1947. Even if they have never been inside the store, most Vancouverites remember the business for its giant neon sign, a landmark that blazes "paint" in multi-coloured letters – cream, teal, burnt orange, royal blue, and rusty red.

‘Neath the neon is another sign that boasts "10 to 50 percent off!," with "comparative prices" in small print. To hammer the message home, the front of the building is a glorious hodge-podge of hand-written lettering reading "Ted Harris, Paints & Wallpaper, Wholesale and Retail." There’s even a painting of a giant paintbrush.

The interior is just as cool, with an old-style high ceiling, banks of paint cans and a battery of paint mixers and shakers that look like they’ve been around since the industrial revolution.

The building dates to about 1910, a decade before Bob¹s grandfather Joseph Harris showed up from Montreal and opened up the East End Excellent Service Second Hand Store. (He’s listed in an old city directory as a "junk pedlar," which was a common vocation for Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s – Joseph’s birth name was Moishe Rosen.)

Joseph Harris died in 1926 and his wife Fannie married a man named Kaufman.

But the family fell on hard times during the depression, and Ted Harris and his two brothers were sent to an orphanage in Winnipeg.

Ted eventually came back to Vancouver, and by 1938 had taken over 757 East Hastings for a bicycle store. Legend has it you could rent one of his bikes for 15 cents an hour.

"They would rent them here because we were so close to Stanley Park," relates Bob Harris.

"People would bring them back late sometimes, and would hammer on the door, because they didn¹t want to pay the rent the following morning."

This would work, because Ted Harris lived in the back of the store in an apartment he tacked on to the original building. There were another three apartments for rent upstairs. None of the apartments have been occupied for decades, but their tile kitchens and bathrooms with clawfoot tubs are intact.

Bob Harris lived in the back of the store until he was 10. The Strathcona neighbourhood – or the East End, to someone of Bob’s vintage – was a far different place in those days.

"We used to go down down to the docks and get the turnips and potatoes when they fell off the conveyer belts transferring the food from the trains to the trucks," he recalls.

"We got a chicken once, a chicken got loose. We kept it in [my friend's] basement as a pet, until one day when they invited me over for chicken dinner. I had no idea I was eating my pet."

Ted Harris thrived in the paint business, even starting up his own line of Harritite and Ted Harris paints. Harris didn¹t actually make the paint – it came from a large manufacturer which allowed Harris to put his imprint on its product.

"They might make 2,000 gallons," says Bob Harris.

"The first 1,500 with their label, the last 500 gallons with our label. It’s exactly the same product, we just sell it at a cheaper price."

Walking through the building with Bob is like taking a heritage tour. Up on a shelf in his office are some old bicycle tools from the 40s. Below them is an antique "partner’s desk," which had two sides – the partners would face each other.

This one has been modified, however.

"When they became out of fashion 40 years ago, my dad took a chainsaw and sawed it in half," Bob says. "We still have the other half in another office."

He points out another ancient artifact, a five-foot-tall safe made by the Hall Safe Company of Cincinnati. The patent is from 1906, and the safe is used to this day.

"It can still hold money, so why not use it?" laughs Bob.

The basement is where he cut his teeth in the paint business, at the age of


"I used to sit down here and package dry colours," he says. "I used to get a 50 pound bag of raw sienna or whatever and repackage it in five pound bags. For a month after that I’d sneeze raw sienna or burnt umber or whatever I was packaging."

Hard work ran in the family. Ted Harris worked in the store until he died at the age of 88.

"He worked all his life here, pretty well," says Bob, who was an only child.

"One Friday while he was working in the store and he didn’t feel very well. I took him to the hospital and he passed away two weeks later."

Bob has decided to take another path, retiring while he’s still relatively young.

"We put a notice in the Vancouver Sun that we were retiring, and people came rushing in to buy [the remaining paint stock]," he says.

"Now it’s almost all gone. A friend of mine phoned up today and said he wanted two quarts of paint, but I didn’t have it. So I offered to give him a gallon for nothing. He said okay" – he pauses – "but he wanted me to deliver it to him."

What will happen to the landmark neon sign? Good question. Bob offered it to the Vancouver Museum, which has a neon sign collection, but it turned him down.

"They said it was too big, they just couldn’t store it," he says.

"It would have been nice if it had went to the museum; it would have been something you could take your grandchildren to show them. But they’re not interested."




Ted Harris Paints
Time catches up with a century-old shop on East Hastings

By Michael Harris
published May 1, 2010

One of these stairs will snap, then this paint shaker is going to plough over my face and kill me. And then you're going to have to live with that."
Fifty-year-old paint shakers are impossibly heavy pieces of hardware. My brother and I discovered this fact as we lugged them down three rickety flights, from the abandoned suites above my father's shuttered paint shop to the bin in the alley behind 757 East Hastings, where 92 years of crap and history were being neatly piled.
Ted Harris Paints was a family business. Ted, my grandfather, grew up in a four-room apartment at the back of the shop until he, along with his two brothers, was sent away to a Jewish orphanage in Winnipeg during the Great Depression. He was kicked out at 15, having beaten up a headmaster who'd beaten up his littlest brother, Harry. A few years later, in 1947, he returned to the paint shop's apartment, in back, with his newborn son, my dad. My grandfather must have had a certain respect for fighting. He installed a boxing ring in the basement for the neighbourhood kids. Doug Hepburn, the club-footed world champion weightlifter, trained there.
The street my dad played in as a child was far gentler than the desolate block in today's Downtown Eastside. What was once a makeshift stable is now a parking lot behind the store. The string of heritage homes is now a strip of warehouses. Where women once loitered and gossiped with baby carriages, they now wait for johns.
Dad sold yardsticks (lifted from the paint store) out of his wagon, which he dragged up and down Hastings. (Thirty years later, my mom would park her Volvo there and remind me to lock the door.) He attended Strathcona Elementary, where he got the strap for running through the girls' play court. He took his 25-cent weekly allowance and would choose one of three theatres down the way to spend it at. "A block west of Main there was the Avon-that was 10 cents. A little further this way was the Luxe, which cost 15 cents. And in the next block there was the Majestic. That one cost the whole quarter."
When nothing good was on, Dad and his friend Lesley would go down to the railway tracks and wait for bags to rupture while vegetables were being unloaded. They'd snap up turnips or cabbages and give them to local families. On one scavenge, a chicken escaped from its crate; the boys imprisoned it in Lesley's dirt-floor basement and, one evening, killed, cooked, and ate it.

Last fall, Dad announced he was calling quits. He had hit retirement age and, in a way, the street felt exhausted, too. People came through the door in tears. Eighty-year-old Mr. Brodie-who had bought paint for six decades-paid his respects. John Mackie wrote a long eulogy in the Sun, mentioning that my two brothers and I weren't interested in carrying on the century-old family business. This inspired one ornery reader to write, under the heading "Slacker Sons": "What a shame and loss to Vancouver History. Shame on those boys!!" As though we had a responsibility to work there, whether we wanted to or not, like my dad, and his dad, who had worked there from childhood onward whether they wanted to or not.
Through the decades, as shops down the block boarded up their windows, as the streets became so intimidating no shopper would stroll them, Ted Harris Paints stayed afloat because half its business came from outside the area. West End apartment blocks and suburban hotel chains and even the Vancouver Art Gallery used Ted Harris white paint to cover whatever came before.
"If we were just a neighbourhood business, it wouldn't have worked," Dad told me as we cleared out the junk. "A big part of the population in this area doesn't spend money on paint or shoes or groceries, so local-based shops can't make it." A monoculture of poverty is not a neighbourhood, and a shopless Downtown Eastside has proven to him that "it takes a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker to have a strong community."
When I asked what he was going to miss (aside from the customers), he said, "The building. It's my first home. And it's where I worked all my life."
I myself worked there three days. One day I swept. One day I picked up condoms in the parking lot. And that last day, I lugged antique paint shakers down from the attic and heaved them in a disposal bin. As my brother and I stood around with Dad and the fading light spilled red down the alley, we felt a flush of elation at finishing a day's work. The future's uncertain; if nobody wants to lease the building, Dad will have to sell, breaking generations of family ownership. Dad looked back at the tired, abandoned space and spread his arms expansively. "Just think," he said. "One day all this could be yours."
But we all knew it wasn't true. VM

Next door to Ted Harris Paint was Wallace Neon who were responsible for crafting many of Vancouver's best neon signs.

Artist: Anastasia Khoroshilova
Title: Wallace-Neon-1967-2002
Size: 48" x 36" x 5 1/2"
Medium: Cibachrome Transparency

Courtesy of Corkin Gallery

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