Businessman Looks Inward, Finds Rewards in Birdhouses, Meditation

Posted By Mike Padgett

Aug. 28, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz. – From alley scraps, a workshop philosopher in Phoenix creates garden art.

He makes colorful birdhouses out of discarded lumber, metal sheeting and glass doorknobs.

If you have a friendly ear, and not everyone does, David Bruce might offer wisdom as comfortable as sensible shoes. He fought hard for the sacred chords that are guideposts on his personal roadmap. I’ll let him share his story.

“There are so many people out there who really do just hate what they do. I always thought it would be pretty cool to have a company where I could hire people that want to do something different.”

On this day, Bruce is wearing paint-splattered denim cutoffs, a faded yellow T-shirt and jogging shoes. White strings dangle from his cutoffs.

Bruce started his Phoenix company, Weathered Wonders, in the early 1990s. He makes colorful birdhouses from scrap lumber and metal sheeting. He scrounges his supplies from alleys or wherever he can find it. He worked out of his garage for three years. Then he found space at 1126 E. Indian School Road in Phoenix, where he works today.

The wood for his birdhouses is weathered or new, depending on what’s available. Perches under the round front entry could be brass nozzles, glass doorknobs or spoons or forks he finds in antique stores.

In his current career, Bruce finds rewards that didn’t exist in his previous job. He managed 50 employees in a telemarketing business.

He was paid well but what he didn’t like about telemarketing was the shallowness of the work. It lacked a sense of achievement, fulfillment, personal rewards. Somehow – he’s forgotten the details – he found himself drawn to making birdhouses. He enjoys working with his hands, and he found a ready market.

“Fortunately for me, I had some circumstances in my life that made me slow down. It made me start looking at myself internally. And that relates to being able to look at what did I really want to do, and what was important to me. As opposed to just go to work every day and, you know, that merry-go-round.”

Bruce stops talking while he’s using his nailgun, or stands before the table saw. His employee Jimmy Clayton is on the other workbench. On a recent summer morning, minutes after arriving at his central Phoenix shop, Bruce jumped back in his pickup for a quick trip to the hardware store. He needed a new circular saw blade.

Bruce estimates that over the years, his company has made several thousand birdhouses. The designs have evolved over the years to a concept that looks like something out of a child’s dream. Wavy roofs are guaranteed to grab a second look.

“I never really thought that there was that much call for birdhouses. It’s a novelty thing, you know.”

He scans magazines at home and in the grocery checkout lines for trends in colors. When he wants a new design, he will stand his lumber and other supplies up against the wall, and wait for them to talk to him.

“I built the first birdhouses because they were fun. I didn’t build them because I thought people were going to be banging down my door and giving me money.”

Weathered Wonders is in an aging retail center where, with its view of Central Avenue high rises, business owners have survived economic ups and downs. A block east of Bruce’s door is a grade school filled with bilingual youngsters, many of whom walk to class.

A few blocks west, at Seventh Street, a high-profile developer once considered razing the businesses and tiny houses near the intersection’s northeast corner to make room for a retail center. The developer later nixed the idea. The numbers didn’t pencil out.

Outside Bruce’s front door, the busy east-west street stretches to the horizons. Two rush hours a day, commuters whiz by. But if motorists pay attention, they see a collection of colorful Lilliputian houses that Bruce parks on the sidewalk, like tiny customers lining up at an angle leading to his door.

“It’s just a bright and colorful piece that people can take home with them. It’s not sophisticated art that you got to hold your pinkie up to, to understand. I mean it’s just simple Americana art. That’s all it’s referred to, as Americana art, garden art. It’s been around since your grandfather, and before him.”

Early in his career of making birdhouses, Bruce’s buyers were in metro Phoenix. Some used his birdhouses as accent interior decorations. One buyer added 20 birdhouses to her back yard. The retail price range is $35 to $150.

“I’ve seen some of the old stuff in books from years and years ago, and you know, people got pretty creative, even back then. Making (birdhouses) to match their old mansions and things like that, with pillars in front. Birdhouses that look like the White House. They had some creativity in them, even back then, you know.”

He nailed more pieces of roof on his newest, old-looking birdhouse. When that birdhouse was finished, Bruce started another, grabbing supplies from the other side of his shop.

“The more I thought about my own life, the more I saw there was something else inside of me that I could do.”

A few years ago, when his Arizona sales slumped, Bruce expanded to art fairs in other states. Today, he estimates he has “30 to 40 stores that now buy from us, all over the country,” including Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Colorado and California.

“Those that buy, buy pretty regularly. Some of them, not so often. Denver and Boulder, they buy four or five times a years.”

Bruce uses an air-powered nail gun to attach wood strips as a roof on the four walls. He raises his voice over the air compressor that starts and stops, and the noisy wood sander Clayton is using at another workbench.

“I’ve never been afraid to just get in the truck and go somewhere to do a show and to do whatever. It can break you because you can get three days from home and hundreds of dollars in motels and gas and all that, and then find nothing there that’s profit.”

On a recent trip to Colorado, Bruce found himself with some free time. He’d been thinking about starting a book.

“I think everybody has a short story or a book in them. But most have such cluttered lives, they just don’t even look inside themselves to see.”

Bruce believes everyone has some internal idea just waiting to escape and burst into creation. The challenge is recognizing that inner potential, and then making time for its escape.

“Maybe there’s not a book in you. Maybe there’s a comedy sketch in you. Maybe there’s a song in you. Maybe there’s a piece of furniture that you want to build.”

The air compressor came on again. Bruce raised his voice. He picked up his vacuum hose to clean off his bench.

“There’s something in there that we all want to do, and we’re probably pretty damn good at it. We all have something in us. We just get afraid that, ‘I got to get to work, man. I don’t have time. I got to get this done. I got to do this. I got to clean the house.’”

Bruce says he recently discovered meditation. He doesn’t mind being alone, whether it’s reading a book, sitting alone on a mountain, or driving solo, whether he’s headed nowhere or to an art fair.

“When you don’t have anything to think about, when you can teach your mind to not think about anything, then it thinks about things that are important.”

Bruce has much more he could share about himself with interested listeners. Maybe that will be part of the book idea that’s circulating in his mind.

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Aug 28th, 2009

One Comment to 'Businessman Looks Inward, Finds Rewards in Birdhouses, Meditation'

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  1. joe lauer said,

    nice story!
    my daughter move into an apartment last year at indian school and central. shw bought me one of these for my birthday. we have a collection hanging under the rafters of our patio :-)

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