BURLINGTON - At Bibens Ace Hardware on North Avenue, you can buy all the standard DIY paraphernalia: paint, grass seed, light bulbs, plungers, stud-finders, mousetraps. Not so standard is what's for rent. Near the exit door, a life-sized cardboard poster of a handsome young man in a tool belt advertises the store's repair service. "Rent-a-Husband," it recommends, "for those jobs that never get done."
Question is, can the handy hunk fix a growing public-relations problem? Since the "Rent-a-Husband" program launched, a number of neighbors have criticized Ace - in letters to the editor, and on blogs and local listservs - for perpetuating negative gender stereotypes. Such clichéd characterizations "limit how people understand the capacities and potential of men and women," as John Grimm put it in a post on his neighborhood Front Porch Forum. Sarah Mell of Washington Street and her lesbian partner see it as another "inherent mark of heterosexism in the world" - not to mention "sexism in general."
Gail Compton is more plainspoken. "It's insulting to men, and it's insulting to women," says the single mother of four boys. "When I was married, I was the one who owned the power tools." Compton's 20-year relationship with her neighborhood hardware store ended abruptly the other day, when she told the man she believed to be the owner what she thought of the "Rent-a-Husband" promo. She claims Rick Bibens followed her outside and angrily announced, "I never want you in my store again. You're banned for life. We don't need customers like you."
General Manager Brian Baird tells a different story. Speaking for his vacationing boss, who is usually at his Springfield, Vermont, store, Baird says Bibens hasn't been in the North Avenue location for three weeks. He says he heard about Compton's altercation - with another manager - and claims it was all captured on the in-store camera. After describing Compton as a "very good customer," Baird explains, "There are times when you fire a customer, but that was not the case here. The manager was saying, 'Listen, I'm sorry you have this issue.' In no way did he say anything about banning her."
Baird downplays negative reaction to the Rent-a-Husband program, a Portland, Maine-based franchise - not an Ace invention - that Bibens and company "rolled out" to meet customer needs in the area. "They were saying they couldn't rely on contractors. We'd recommend someone, and suddenly he was no longer there. This gave us a secure individual we could recommend to get various tasks done and completed: installing door locks, replacement windows, even moving furniture." Baird estimates the "Rent-a-Husband" service is currently generating enough business to keep one guy busy for 40 hours a week.
Does he look like "Julio the Pool Guy," as Compton describes the dude in the poster?
"Probably not," Baird admits. He adds, "The most successful Rent-a-Husband franchise is female-owned, and they wouldn't fit, either."
Exactly, the program's opponents would say. "I know there are many men who don't pick up a tool and women who do," Grimm notes in his post.
Why not call it "Rent-an-Ace," or "Rent-an-Extra-Hand" - as Henri de Marne suggested in a letter in Monday's Burlington Free Press?
Of course, there's always the chance the campaign's catchy name will backfire for reasons that have nothing to do with political correctness. "The image isn't a good image as far as I'm concerned," Compton observes. For her, a "husband" suggests "some guy to sit on the couch, drinking beer, while more work piles up."