Editor's column: Harry's New Economy Featured

9:36am EDT July 22, 2002

When my Craftsman lawnmower seemingly died a miserable, choking death about five years ago, neighbors told me I should see Harry Blaine across the creek.

I couldn't afford a new lawnmower at the time, but Harry had several old ones for only $25 each. So I bought one, figuring I'd get my money's worth even if it lasted only a year.

"And by the way," I told him, "I was going to throw away my old lawnmower, but you're welcome to have it for parts."

Harry, ever the country gentleman, graciously accepted.

Two years later, my lawnmower died, so I went back to Harry to trade in the mower for a "new" one. He said he had just the thing for me, and it worked pretty well. When he rolled it out of his repair shed, it looked oddly familiar.

That's because it was my old Craftsman. He made another $25 that day, and the lawn mower which I had thrown away continues to serve me well to this day.

Old Harry Blaine isn't exactly what you would call New Economy. At 89 years old, he has lived through his share of old and new economies, depressions, recessions and prosperity. But in the little village of Midway, Harry has become a legend of sorts, known for a sixth sense that allows him to take what the rest of us discard -- broken drills, saws, sanders, clocks, lawnmowers -- and give them new life.

Sporting his trademark straw fedora with plastic poinsettia and a wide, friendly smile that doesn't even try to disguise a missing front tooth or two, he plies his hobby -- his gift -- at yard sales, flea markets and even the neighborhood trash in search of throwaways with potential.

Obviously, he's not in it for the money. That's not what Old Harry is about. For him, it's an attitude, a way of life. He's sort of the quintessential face of the Old Economy.

For the New Economy, however, Harry serves as a shining example of why we shouldn't act so hastily in disregarding or discarding the Old. For the Old still have a thing or two to teach the New when it comes to business and life.

Rescuing and reviving the old is nothing new for Harry, whose generation will never quite understand the wasteful, disposable mentality of the 21st century. He says it all started back in the late 1930s, when he began to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. While waiting for his train at the Fourth Avenue station in Pittsburgh, he found himself wandering regularly into a scrap yard nearby.

"They'd get junk in and throw it away," Harry says. "I'd find drills and old saws. So I'd talk to the scrap man and give him a quarter or 50 cents -- whatever they were worth as scrap." And then he'd fix them up and sell them.

Why would he bother?

"It takes a lot of time and patience, but I enjoy doing it," he says, laughing. "And otherwise, they would go to waste when someone else could use them. Sometimes I see nothing wrong with them but a broken wire."

Sometimes, I see nothing wrong with the Old Economy but a proverbial broken wire. So why are the drivers of this New Economy so eager to prove the Old broken and obsolete? I'm all in favor of new business paradigms, new and more creative ways to look at the way we approach business and life.

But youthful, arrogant gumption and whiz-bang Internet technologies aimed at pushing aside the Old Economy aren't always the prudent answer. Sometimes, all we need is a new wire or two, and the patience and passion to see the value in what already is, whether it's a lawnmower or an Old Economy industry. The new technology should simply make it better.

Old Harry Blaine, who may walk a bit slower these days and take each day more in stride than he used to, doesn't even know what the New Economy is or what he may be missing. But what he still can offer is the simple wisdom of the ages. And he's not blind to what this New Economy has done to a lot of people.

"Are they foolish?" I ask him, sitting in a basement surrounded by his idea of a New Economy -- rebuilt or recycled power tools and clocks.

"A lot of people are," he agrees, after a long pause.

"People today have all kinds of money," he says. "It ain't like it was in the old days, when we didn't have the money. We had to fix things ourselves. Just because they have money to spend today, they shouldn't just throw things away."

Of course, with an extra $50 in his pocket at my expense, Harry is grateful that I did. And, for the chance to know Old Harry Blaine and gain some of his wisdom, so am I. Daniel Bates is editor of SBN.

Tell me what you think, good or bad. E-mail me your opinion at dbates@sbnnet.com or send me a letter via SBN magazine, 800 Vinial St., Suite B-208, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.