May 2003

Secret Shopper

Downward Spiral
Part I: The Adventure Begins
by Debra Levy

 Editor's Note: This is the first part of a two-part series. Be sure to watch for the continuation in the June 2003 issue.

The secret shopper was not happy. In fact, she was downright despondent. The day was an arctic-cold wintry one that was supposed to unfold complete with a holiday party and parade. Instead, it turned into a secret shopping experience she would never forget and one that demonstrated the distinctions between large chains and hometown hardware stores.

You see, my original assignment for SHELTER magazine was to develop a story about wood stair restoration. My family had been in the process of restoring an old “rivah cottage” on the Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia for two months. So I arrived at the house that Saturday morning in mid-December, expecting to chronicle the refurbishment of its grand old curved staircase banister. 

“Perfect,” I had thought, “I’ll meet with the wood worker then get to see the parade.” The quirky, old river town has an annual Christmas parade heralding Santa’s arrival by boat that featured floats on golf carts and a processional of lights on the water.

Steve Price and I pulled up at the house at the same time. Price runs Furniture Medics of King George, a local furniture restoration franchise. He also serves as a contractor in the area. In this little Virginia hamlet, it had been difficult to find someone to work on the staircase. There were no custom wood- or cabinet-makers in the area. None of the wood flooring companies wanted to touch it and referred me to furniture refinishers. All of them, save Price, told me they did not do that kind of work and couldn’t help me. Since I had no real other options, my choice became to go with his company or not have the job done at all. In short, I needed to check both Price and his work.

I was quizzing him on his years of experience as we walked up the steps and opened the front door. We were still chatting when we entered the house and I got my first inkling that something was wrong. Wait a minute, I thought, I didn’t leave glass on the floor … or all that dirt there. Something’s not right.

The house had been robbed, of course. The beautiful, old, original side porch door had been kicked in and destroyed. Luckily, the only thing taken was a 27-inch flat-screen television.

“I’d go take a look at the door but I don’t think we should disturb anything until the police get here,” said Price. 

“Uh, right,” I uttered, secretly thanking him for reminding me that that should be my next step.

“Robbed, youv got robbed here?” said the incredulous voice answering the phone at the local police station. 

“We don’t get many robberies around here at all. We’ve got two police officers on duty, but they are both working the parade,” the voice continued. “I’ll send one of them over once Santa arrives and the parade is over. Might be awhile. Heard you bought the old Brewington place. Welcome to town.”

Oh, yes, the parade! I glanced grudgingly at my watch, guessing now that I might get to see it next year.

A very cold blast of air from the opening where the door had been brought me back to reality. Steve Price was talking to me. 

“Mrs. Levy, I feel just terrible that this has happened. I don’t live too far from here and this is not what this town is like. We are neighbors here and we just don’t treat our neighbors like this. I have finished looking at the staircase and can go over that with you later. You are going to have to wait for the police before either one of us can touch anything. But here’s my home number. When you are done, call me and I’ll come back and help you secure your house.” 

If my arms hadn’t been frozen, I’d have hugged him.

“There are two stores nearby but one closes at noon and the other won’t have the door we need. I suggest you head up to LaPlata and visit the Home Depot there. They should be open later and have a door that will work. Call me when you have the door and I’ll come back,” Price said. “It may be late, but you can call me.”

It was nearly 3 p.m. and had started snowing again by the time the police officer was done. He had spent a good deal of time finger-printing what was clearly a shoe print, but that’s another story. 

That done, I closed what was left of the door and headed out for Home Depot. 

Debra Levy is the president of Key Communications Inc., publisher of SHELTER magazine.


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