Harris Paints: An icon closes on Hastings street
Thursday, October 1st, 2009
Harris family has run a store at 757 East Hastings for nine decades.
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.
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.
picks up an old colour chart.
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.
don’t know what retro is until they come here," he
laughs. "This is the real thing."
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Harris died in 1926 and his wife Fannie married a man named Kaufman.
the family fell on hard times during the depression, and Ted Harris
and his two brothers were sent to an orphanage in Winnipeg.
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.
would rent them here because we were so close to Stanley Park,"
relates Bob Harris.
would bring them back late sometimes, and would hammer on the
door, because they didn¹t want to pay the rent the following
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
might make 2,000 gallons," says Bob Harris.
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
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.
one has been modified, however.
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."
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.
can still hold money, so why not use it?" laughs Bob.
basement is where he cut his teeth in the paint business, at the
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."
work ran in the family. Ted Harris worked in the store until he
died at the age of 88.
worked all his life here, pretty well," says Bob, who was
an only child.
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
has decided to take another path, retiring while he’s still
put a notice in the Vancouver Sun that we were retiring, and people
came rushing in to buy [the remaining paint stock]," he says.
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
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.
said it was too big, they just couldn’t store 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."