Painting the Town

Richard Fleischman

A casual visit to Savitt Brothers Paint will yield a week's worth of overheard conversation. And, if you're not careful, you might learn something about home decor along the way. "Fine Paint since 1928" is the half-rhyme that adorns the Savitt business card, but it's the repartee at the counter that has kept customers coming back through the decades. "I won't give you a stirrer," Burton Savitt tells an eager patron, "but I'll give you a paint paddle." Burt issues the cheap slab of wood as if dispensing the Eucharist. "When you come back, be sure to bring this clean and dry," he says with a wink.

Burt and his younger brother Arnie have run the family business out of its current location, at the southeast corner of 15th Street and Nicollet Avenue, since 1983. It's a nondescript block, not quite Loring Park and not quite downtown Minneapolis. Across 15th Street is the "meter farm," where a half-acre crop stands in tidy rows. A couple of blocks south, traffic groans past on I-94. A two-minute walk in any direction would cast the city in a more flattering light. Still, the Savitt brothers feel at home there, on what Arnie describes as "a nice, clean street--a bright street." The previous store at 10th and Hennepin was too small, Burt explains, and lacked adequate parking. Best of all, the Savitts own the building on Nicollet, a low-slung, boxy affair in gray and purple.

At any rate, the main attraction lies inside. The shelves are packed with all manner of decorating options, and the reek of paint thinner fills the room. I ask the Savitt brothers whether they ever get used to the odor. "Is there a smell in here?" asks Burt. "I use deodorant," Arnie retorts. Over the decades, Arnie and Burt have assumed cult status in their field, even among their employees. "One is nice and one isn't," says counter man Jim Woelm. "I can't tell which is which." In fact, Burt is a bit more outgoing than his younger brother Arnie, but that's like saying honey is sweeter than sugar.

The Savitt brothers are best enjoyed in tandem. At a glance, you might guess they're on the cusp of retirement: the glasses, the thinning gray hair, the sometimes-wobbly gait. Their energy and wit suggest otherwise. "In the old days, there was a butcher who used to save the rib bones for us," Arnie says. "We'd dry 'em out and use 'em as clackers." He does a weird pantomime suggesting a dance, his hands making pinching motions in the air. It finally dawns on me that he's speaking of castanets. Burt looks at the floor in mock embarrassment and explains, "That was in the days before CDs."

Depending upon how you look at it, the Savitts' local presence has either withered or waxed in the past couple of decades. "Once upon a time," says Burt, "we had six stores. We were in Golden Valley, Fridley, St. Louis Park..." But the empire was spread too thin, and the commitment to service finally won out. "The stores were too small, and the quality of people we were able to hire just wasn't up to our standards," Burt says. "We couldn't get top-notch people at $7 per hour. They became journalists and got $7.50 per hour." The franchise has gradually retreated to the flagship store on Nicollet Avenue. At the same time, Burt and Arnie show no signs of slowing down. Their ever-loyal customers include the Guthrie Theater, The Marshall Field Company, and a certain local food critic. Accounts are still carried on carbon paper ledgers, as in the days before CDs.

In the face of stiff competition from the likes of Menards and Home Depot, the Savitts have opted in recent years to play to their strengths: trade wisdom, specialty products, and a rare knack for customer service. "We handle things that most other stores don't," Arnie explains. "Theatrical paints, artist paints, bronzing powders." Looking for leopard-skin wallpaper? They've got it. Maybe you'd prefer an Aztexploitation motif for the guest room: Cartoonish scenes of painted birds, warriors, and livestock adorn a field of eggshell white. In any case, it won't be cheap. The paper itself runs about $40 per roll, and most professionals charge around $22 per roll to hang the stuff, Burt says.

As for the do-it-yourselfers, Arnie cites the Savitt Brothers' ace in the hole: Whether they choose latex, enamel, or wallpaper, "everyone makes mistakes. But if they come to us, they'll make fewer mistakes. And the information is available immediately. We've been here for 76 years," he boasts. I've barely met the man, but I can't resist the obvious comeback: "What did you do before that?" Arnie doesn't miss a beat: "Not many people know this, but I'm 103 years old." The clock reads 4:45 p.m. " I'm gonna go home. I hate to pay myself overtime."

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