WHO: Patti Small
WHAT: It hardly sounds like upward mobility: Chuck your job of 20 years — in the glamorous world of movies and TV, no less — to work out of the back of your pickup in an endless cascade of parking lots. But it’s working for Small, who’s fast emerging as a drawing card on the growing circuit of farmers’ markets in Eastern Massachusetts, even if many customers know her only as ‘‘the knife-sharpening lady.’’
Just last year, Patti Small had trouble convincing farmers’ market managers to let her set up her knife-sharpening rig, but this year she’s in demand. Peg Mallett of Russell’s Garden Center, which hosts Wayland’s farmers’ market, was an early inviter and isn’t surprised.
“With all this fresh food, people are going to have an interest in cooking. [Hosting Small] is a great way of expanding the market and making it unique for that week. As markets begin to look more and more the same, it’s natural to seek out how to distinguish yourself,’’ Mallett said.
The combination of popularity and promotion has a down side, or it did for Sue Spielman of Belmont a couple of weeks ago when she wanted Small to tune up her bevy of blades.
“I was a little frustrated that she was advertised as being at the [Belmont] farmers’ market, and when I got there, she said, ‘oh, I can’t do them now, I have too many other knives ahead of you,’ ’’ Spielman recounted.
Still, she agreed to do the knives after the market closed, and Spielman agreed to retrieve them at the Lexington market a few days later. Where last year Small appeared at markets week after week, this year she makes it to many markets - from Arlington to Marblehead, from Boston to Groton, only once a month. She’s even been known to return knives to customers’ homes, although she says her busier schedule this year precludes that amenity any more.
‘There didn’t seem to be anyone who could [sharpen my knives] by hand, and I decided I could learn.’
Small attributes such personal flourishes to her life’s outlook, but the overflow may also stem from her previous career as a production accountant: “When I sat in an accounting office and had to deal with people, my attitude was, everyone’s trying to rip the show off and it’s my job to try to stop them. People generally did not like me before. Now, it’s a very strange thing, ’cause, like, people like me.’’
“When she comes,’’ said Mallett, “it’s like an old friend is coming, even though I’ve known her only a year. She has that wonderful personality.’’
OK, she’s fun, but what about the sharpening?
Spielman gave her more than a dozen items to sharpen, for which she paid $92. “I gave her my cooking knives, but I also do a lot of sewing. The sewing shears are great. The knives are sharp. She also did a cleaner job, without the scratch marks others have left.’’
The fact that she’ll take on many types of blades helped her gain a foothold in Wayland, which hosts no other service providers. “She does tool sharpening, and this being a garden center, this was a really good match,’’ Mallett said. “Someone brought a hatchet a couple of weeks ago. One project she took on last summer was this rotary mower I had. I was so impressed that she took the time to learn it.’’
What impressed customer Curtis McMillan of Watertown enough to tweet his admiration afterward was her combination of skill and passion. “The thing with Patti is, the skill that she’s doing is a dying art. [Also,] there’s just something about being creative about doing manual labor and really enjoying it.’’ Added McMillan, who plans to start a whiskey distillery: “There may not be anything about sharpening knives that will help me make a better whiskey, but that passion is great to be around.’’
Small, who lives in Bolton with her girlfriend and “about 15’’ animals, chose her new livelihood a couple of years ago when she was also looking for someone to sharpen her knives. “There didn’t seem to be anyone who could do it by hand, and I decided I could learn.’’ Thus began On the Edge Knife Sharpening.
She tried out a half-dozen methods before settling on a slightly Rube Goldberg-ish rig fashioned by Oregonian Ben Dale in which the whetstone is run over the blade, instead of the opposite. After almost every pass, Small runs a fingertip over the edge to assess progress; surprisingly, she has yet to slice herself.
But she has revived herself: “It’s like a whole basic life change. I go to work and I like my job, and because I do, I’m nicer to people. And when I’m nicer to them, they’re nicer to me. It’s just a lot nicer way to live.’’