For me, it started with the wood rasp.
A cook friend told me there was a great wood rasp at Lee Valley that was perfect for zesting lemons, limes, and oranges. It was. It still is.
Tools that last a lifetime and gadgets to make life easier — that’s the promise of Lee Valley, started in 1978 by Lorraine and Leonard Lee as a mail-order business for woodworking tools that now is a $150-million-a-year business with 19 retail stores across Canada and 850 employees.
My first exposure to Lee Valley was through relatives who did woodworking, or were on the hunt for the Perfect Japanese Knife. Once I started seeing the catalogues, I realized Lee Valley also had a big selection of garden tools. I went to the closest outlet to try them out, and was hooked.
Initially, Lee Valley sold tools made by others but founder Leonard Lee got frustrated because he’d get feedback from customers, suggest changes for improvements to manufacturers, and not get anywhere. So only a few years after launching the mail-order business, he launched a tool manufacturing division out of Ottawa, Veritas Tools. He also decided to get into bricks-and-mortar stores when a 1981 postal strike just about took out the young business dependent on reliable post.
Leonard Lee died last year at age 77 and the Globe and Mail wrote a long, and thorough, assessment of his life. I learned the astonishing fact that Lee lived by a promise that “no executive in his company would make more than 10 times the wage of the lowest-paid worker, a ratio almost unheard of in Canadian industry. The company has never laid off staff, and 25 per cent of pre-tax profits are paid out to employees each year as a bonus – with every worker getting the exact same cut. ‘I get the same amount as the cleaner,’ Mr. Lee told The Globe and Mail in 2013 when he was the company’s chairman, noting that empowered and properly compensated employees work hard to make customers happy.”
No wonder the clerks are always so cheerful at Lee Valley.
A Lee Valley store has items on display, but buying something there is still rooted in the catalogue/ mail order experience. You look through catalogues, have to fill out an order and take it to a staff person, who then brings your items out from the inventory warehouse.
Lee Valley also sometimes finds treasures that aren’t quite in their tool wheelhouse – particularly things related to camping, gardens, or the outdoors. After many years of getting frustrated with traditional picture-perfect picnic baskets — too heavy to lug, handles breaking, wicker fraying — I found the Lee Valley Deluxe Picnic Backpack. I love this thing. I love it so much that I have given at least five of them as gifts to other people. It is genius, a backpack outfitted with all the dishes and bits you’ll need in one compartment, an insulated compartment for food, a detachable insulated bottle bag, and a plaid blanket (rolled and strapped to the pack). It has only one flaw, for which I soon found an easy fix: once your dishes are dirtied after eating, it’s messy to put them back into the pack. The solution is to add a plastic bag, into which the dirty dishes go.
People who know quality in tools flock to Lee Valley. I discovered through the Globe story that a doctor in Ottawa once told Leonard Lee he was using Lee Valley woodworking knives for surgery, prompting Lee to set up a new company to make and sell medical instruments.
So it came as no surprise to learn that my engineer pal Dave was another Lee Valley devotee.
Dave and his partner Ann invited us to a Christmas party and, in fine cold-weather-Canada tradition, any drinks needed chilling were stacked outside. People were nipping out, then in, to refill a glass of white wine, get a bottle of beer, or pour a pop. Dave decided to light a bonfire and pulled out a gadget that threw a blast of fire onto the waiting wood. “It’s from Lee Valley,” he said, when we stared, a bit stunned. “It’s a Giant Weed Torch. It’s great!”
Main photo of Lee Valley, King Street West, Toronto: Kelley Teahen