Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Another Great Surplus Store Gone - Farewell Amble's
Amble's Metals. It was never on my A-List of places to visit but that was just because it was in such an inconvenient location. It was once on a proper street, just off of Franklin Avenue in South Minneapolis, but various freeway projects chopped the neighborhood up into isolated pockets, and it took some effort to even get to the place.
Ah, but it was usually worth it. Amble's was a complex of 19th century buildings jammed to the rafters with anything metal you could imagine. Pipes, gears, bolts, sheets of stuff. Pulleys, chains, drill bits, saw blades, as well as many objects that I could not identify at all.
Amble's was the kind of store where you never paid a normal price for anything. The owner, an irascible autocrat named Jim, had peculiar ideas on what things were worth. A beat up, vintage bit of machinery that would cost you a small fortune to resurrect might have a lofty and non negotiable price tag. A box of odd metal parts that were perfect for your latest robotics project might get a glance, a shrug, and "Three bucks" as an answer.
Sometimes I would stop in just for the entertainment value of wandering through thousands of square feet of dusty merchandise....just marveling at mysterious stuff pushed far back and high up onto endless tiers of rickety shelves. It had a very post apocalypse feel to it and I regret to say I have no pictures of this.
Because, when I swung by recently with a bit of time and a few vague shopping targets I found this:
Closed. The lights were off inside. Peering into a dusty window with security bars it looked as if the place still contained odds and ends, but there was no life left in it.
Looking down the row of miscellaneous buildings that were cobbled together to make this Surplus Emporium;
So what happened?
No doubt there was a lot of simple economics involved. Metal prices have plunged in recent years and to have your massive inventory suddenly be worth half as much is not a good thing. For the basic stuff people could just go to the local Big Box building supply store and get the item cheaper. And with negligible risk of tetanus. Also, this warren of junk filled buildings can't have been cheap to heat or to keep a functional roof over.
I have mentioned that the owner was something of a character. Although the internet oddly seems to contain no definitive history of Amble's Metals I have been able to glean a few details from sites and conversations devoted (slavishly devoted I might add) to vintage machinery. The most recent owner appears to have been a second generation Amble, so it seems likely that the enterprise was started back when this neighborhood contained many small factories and a big rail yard. These are mostly gone now, in the case of the factories they have fled to the suburbs, or to foreign shores.
Perhaps this comment summed it up best:
Jim always walks around with a wad of cash that would choke a horse. He needs the money - his wife is about 20 years younger and really stacked. He has a wide collection of hardware that he sells very cheaply by the pound depending on what they're made of. I think Jim must buy and sell stuff that never shows up in his store inventory. Jim can be crusty at times but I always enjoy seeing that big stogie stuck in his ugly mug. He's his own man and one of a vanishing breed.
Another commenter said that a friend of his would bring along a cute college aged female friend and that it seemed to allow for more latitude on negotiations. Machinery guys being relatively humor free I suspect his use of the term "wiggle room" was an inadvertent pun. But maybe not.
My first thought on discovering that the business was closed was "Damn, and I missed the sale!!" Indeed. It happened in May of 2016 when I was overseas. Jim Amble was said to be retiring after 42 years in the business. I wish him all the best, and can say that my interactions with him were always enjoyable. He was indeed "his own man". (Note, the founding Amble, his father, was also named Jim, and appears to have been even more of a character!)
And the site? A few months ago it was announced that it had been acquired by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. They are going to demolish what is harshly but accurately described as a group of "blighted buildings" and put up a very 21st century development. Mixed use as they say in chirpy ads. Apartments, a health care clinic and most interestingly their "Minneapolis Embassy". Native American tribes have a sort of quasi independent status in our legal system.
It all seems pretty slick, and if you look at the pretty pictures and read how it is adjacent to the new transit train station and a bike trail that is reportedly going in somewhere it sounds like progress. Of course the neighborhood that currently exists just beyond the boundaries of this little island is one of the worst in the city, but things change over time.
If change is a constant I think we are allowed our own opinions as to whether some aspects of it are good or bad. The clinic/residence/Embassy seen above will certainly have positive features. But our cities are full of complexes that look just like it. While places like Amble's are becoming rare treasures.
Maybe Jim Amble had it right when he argued for prices higher than some would prefer.
I have not seen any time line on when development will actually start. But when the bulldozers finally roll I have no doubt they will be unearthing odd bits of scrap metal everywhere. I also would like to imagine that years from now when everything is new and shiny, that you will still be able to detect the occasional faint whiff of cigar smoke.