The curious life savings of Arvin Kuntz

Not long after beginning my career in the gas utility business, I received my first letter from Arvin Kuntz. He wasn’t a big fan of the gas company and from time to time, he would take the time to create a handwritten missive in which he would enumerate his grievances.

We received nastygrams from others, of course, but Arvin’s were so unique that they were actually memorable and I took the time try to find out a little something about this fellow, who had turned communicating the frustrations of being a disgruntled customer into some kind of an art form.

It is at this point that I need to tell you that while I may have a bit of discipline when it comes to my own dealings, I also have some admiration for the quality of irascibility in some people. There has to be something incredibly liberating about the ability to just blow up like Mount Vesuvius from time to time, blackening the skies with toxic gasses and covering the world in lava and ash in an eruption of what must seem like righteous anger. I may laugh at things more often and they may scream, but these are just different kinds of relief valves.

Arvin called himself an entrepreneur and his place of business – one of them, anyway – was Sav-O Supply. For those who are old enough to remember the 1970s sitcom featuring Red Foxx as a South Central Los Angeles junk dealer in Sanford and Son, you’ve got a little bit of a start on what Arvin’s business was about. He collected and sometimes actually even sold various things. Most of it related to building supplies. Inside the large, dilapidated industrial structure were doors, shutters, fluorescent light bulbs, bathtubs, doorknobs, windows, hardware, lumber, fishing gear, a few printing presses, power tools, paint, dishes, figurines, disposable rain bonnets, an electric organ and all sorts of other disparate items that he had acquired.

Arvin probably had enough doors alone to do the Empire State Building. He stacked, stored and moved the stuff around his building with a forklift and a freight elevator. Out in the yard was a fleet of fully depreciated trucks, along with other weathering stuff that was either too big to deal with or might not be much worse for the wear of being outside anyway. A south wing of the building collapsed a few years back and perhaps some of this stuff might have otherwise been under cover, but it’s hard to say.

For decades – and Arvin was around for a lot of them – Sav-O Supply was just another junky building among many up and down the banks of the Wisconsin River in Wausau. But as the city began to dress things up and other structures were razed to make way for progress, the continually deteriorating Sav-O Supply building was becoming an icon for urban decay. With code violations aplenty, the city eventually closed the building to the public and it was pretty much just Arvin and his stuff. He wasn’t anxious to sell and it seemed as though the property was on track for condemnation.

As I was chairing the city’s Economic Development Committee, I wanted to make sure that we bent over backwards in the area of due process. It was obvious to me that while Arvin could expect a fair price for the property, there was something more at stake here and it was his occupation.

Community Development Director Mike Morrissey assured me that the meeting I wanted to set up with him, Arvin and me would be a waste of time. I conceded that was probably true, but it would be important to say that we’d done it. Besides, I was kind of looking forward to it. Morrissey was a passionate, savvy professional — and an ex-door gunner in Vietnam. Arvin was a world-class curmudgeon. After all the boring meetings I’d been to in my life, a cage match like that sounded kind of interesting.

The meeting was established. Arvin showed up and it didn’t take long for things to head south. Morrissey calmly explained the city’s position. Arvin reached into his pocket and pulled out a well-folded sheet full of that handwriting I recognized from years gone by at the gas company and he began to brief us about his constitutional rights. I suggested an auction and Arvin would have none of it. The meeting ended.

What was clear to me was that while there may have been no way that this wiry octogenarian was making a living out of his ramshackle eyesore of an establishment, he was certainly making a life. I told Morrissey I was pretty sure he could outlive us both on pure piss and vinegar and we left it at that. The city didn’t forget about Sav-O Supply, but there were other fish to fry and a recession to deal with over the ensuing decade or so.

And then a few weeks ago, Channel 9 received a call from an auctioneer who was in the process of organizing a big sale at Sav-O-Supply.

“What do you know about that place?” My daughter asked. “A bit,” I said.

We learned that Arvin was no longer able to ply his trade and his family was in the process of attempting to help arrange his affairs, of which there is undoubtedly considerable arranging to be done. And this weekend, there was a big auction at Sav-O Supply – the one I knew Arvin never really wanted to have.

JR

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6 Responses to “The curious life savings of Arvin Kuntz”

  1. Nancy L. Schulz Says:

    The last time I visited Save-O Supply Arvin met me at the door and allowed me in the checkout area only. He explained that the fire department, because of safety concerns, would no longer let him allow shoppers to peruse throughout the building. He asked me what I was looking to buy and brought the items to me. In the half dozen times I shopped at his store, Alvin never seemed too keen on actually selling items but this time I recall buying a few pounds of nails and screws.

    Alvin liked to talk and this last time I saw him he lamented about the persecution he felt from the city. He explained that he was in his eighties and was paying nursing home costs for his wife who, if my memory serves me correctly (lol), had Alzheimers or at least no longer recognized him. The impression he left me with was that he was trying to do the right thing and was suffering only trouble for it.

    At the time, my dad was on dialysis and in a local nursing home during the three years before his death and Medicaid was paying thousands of dollars each month for these services. My dad legally qualified for Medicaid but as a taxpaying citizen, I suffered guilt when I considered the cost. Yet I loved my dad and was grateful to have the extra time with him, especially since the family hobby farm, where my mom still lived, did not have to be sold to pay for his care. Needless to say I was conflicted.

    So standing in the overcrowded, junky, condemned store (sorry Jim, but your photos just don’t capture the quirkiness of the place – one needs, at the very least, a wide angle lens), hearing Alvin tell his woeful tale, I felt the stinging irony of being nearly overwhelmed by his unusual business situation while envying him his financial integrity.

  2. Esther Maina Says:

    Jim,

    You write this from a total pompous position making comments such as ‘he actually sold a few things’. Did you enjoy your toxic gas cloud of meanness when you wrote this?

    Give the man credit. Unlike your gov’t salaried job, that “junk” you so arrogantly laugh about put Alvin in a place where he wasn’t a DRAIN on society. You should be ashamed of your perspective and degrading remarks.

  3. If that is what you took away from this piece, then I think you missed the point entirely, Esther.

  4. Although I have never met Arvin (boy I wish I could) I feel that he has changed my life in a way. I am an artist, a printmaker more specifically, and now the proud owner of a letterpress that Arvin had the forethought to save. I also was fortunate enough to purchase Wausau’s history in typeset, something I hope to create a book from. I will never forget my time spent in Arvin’s building, the waiver I signed to enter, and the 1100lb treasure that I now hold dear. This man has changed my future through his devotion to the past. Arvin had treasure, and I appreciate your wonderful dedication to his character.

  5. He really was a wonderful guy if a person got to know him as I did. I met him 25 years ago when I was remodeling a home near his place of business. I know beside his wife Virginia, whom he missed trremendously, his life revolved around Sav-O-Supply. He had a really wonderful business that did great $$$ in sales years ago when he was younger (into his 80’s+). Seems ironic that Arvin died the day before his beloved Sav-O-Supply was auctioned off.

    RIP Arv

  6. Warren Camp Says:

    Arvin was a very smart man he was very proud I have thought of him often Warren

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