Co-founder Paul Hawken,
(indeed, there is a Smith) imbued the catalog with a new gardening persona,
making organic gardening a “hip to be square” hippie pastime—still a waft of
patchouli, to be sure, but still refined, mysterious, and sexy. Every tool,
every garden clog, every piece of gorgeous, pricey teak furniture came to
represent for me a vision of organic garden glam, magnified by the sumptuous
photography of pretty people getting dirty and having fun doing it.
Hawken, a superb writer, honed his craft on the garden porn
that sold thousands of tools, trugs, and boots. Moving beyond languid
descriptions of soft afternoons spent thinning the lettuces in a pair of
perfect garden clogs, he soon published Growing
a Business, a practical and inspirational guide to expanding a lifestyle
empire of one’s own. Sporting my canvas gardener’s pants with the insertable
knee pad pockets I drew inspiration from this bible of eco-entrepreneurialism
and dreamt of ways to make gardening my career.
As Hawken pursued his true calling as an green
visionary—beginning with the publication of The
Ecology of Commerce—the company continued to grow, but profits slagged due
in part to an overly optimistic focus on the clothing line. Like me, gardeners
were practical types who liked to muck up only a couple of sets of drawstring
ripstop Japanese Farmer pants at a time. A floundering Smith & Hawken was
purchased in 1993 for $15 million by a firm best known for marketing the
NordicTrack and The Nature Company. The line expanded to include chintzy table
linens and wine bottle totes, and at about that time, I opted out of the
catalog subscription. The soul was gone.
The newly capitalized company moved on to open 25 retail
stores throughout the country. And the company went through several changes in
ownership and management, finally landing in the portfolio of Scott’s, makers
of Miracle-Gro. Hawken started a software company and became a highly
sought-after environmental expert and speaker. Smith was selling organic flower
arrangements through Whole Foods last I heard; and other retailers have made
deep cuts into the market share built on a simple desire on the part of Hawken
cohort and double-digging biointensive gardening guru, John Jeavons , to import and market a
solid garden spade.
I recently thought of Jeavons, Hawken, and Smith as I
perused the discount coupon display on my local S&H counter promoting the
benefits of Miracle-Gro to keep that lawn clean & green. What a crushing
irony that Smith & Hawken, Scott’s latest acquisition, should become leverage
to cross-market all manner of “grow & kill” in the soft summer rain. I knew
it would be the last time I visited the store. The founding principle had been
Though my lifetime guarantee is probably now moot, and I’m
likely to die holding the damn thing, Smith & Hawken no longer carried the
spade I bought so long ago. They carried nothing like it. And now that Smith
& Hawken is shutting down, the lock is now on the door that closed some
time ago for me. According the Marin Independent Journal, Hawken threw a party
on Wednesday night to celebrate the closure.
Smith owns Mulligan’s book store in Ukiah. There are rumors
that Hawken, ever the entrepreneur, has his mind on the garden tool business
again. I hope that’s so. In some ways, the awakening of the gardener in many of
us may be related in some way to those misty black and white photos taken in
the Marin fog. Smith & Hawken validated gardening as a hip pursuit. I’d
love to see what Hawken might do with another opportunity to fill the needs of
serious gardeners for quality garden tools. Smith & Hawken is dead. Long
Live Smith & Hawken.
And if I’m ever in the market for an easily-dissolved
form of plant crack, I know I’ll never go wanting. There will always be Miracle-Gro.