Tom Larson: One-of-a-kind Bay City business owner, artist and creative gem

Tom Larson is a lot like Larson Salvage Co., the sprawling hardware store he owns in Downtown Bay City: Interesting. Busy. And a whole lot of fun.

Tom Larson runs a salvage store and art gallery in Downtown Bay City.Like the “Arrow of Value” schtick Larson occasionally uses in his homey – and wildly popular – Facebook videos.

In them, the 66-year-old is seemingly dragged down the store aisles by a honking, value-seeking divining rod (a wooden broom handle with a neon pink arrow at one end and a bicycle horn at the other) to track down the best deal of the day for his customers.

The salvage store takes up half a city block at the corner of Washington Avenue and Seventh Street. Whatever you need, there’s a good chance you’ll find it here. You’ll inevitably hear “C’mon in and pick them up while supplies last” or “We want to pass our savings along to you.” Because that’s just the kind of guy he is.

Artists from throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region display their work inside the C.A.T, Gallery next door to Larson Salvage.“Unlike with TV, we can make our own videos and get out there and ramble and say stupid things with maybe a little bit of humor to it,” Larson says. “It lets me really connect with customers: I look into the lens and say, ‘Hi. I know you. Come in and try these T-shirts’ or whatever. It’s a lot of fun.”

From the outside, it’s hard to understand all the fuss about Larson’s Salvage. When first-time customers stop in, they usually say how surprised they are at the diverse options.Larson Salvage, 522 Washington Ave., is billed as a hardware store specializing in paints, stains, nuts and bolts, nails and screws. But it’s so much more than that.

His father, Gordon Larson, opened its doors in 1958 as an offshoot of Bay City’s former Mill End, once known as “The World’s Most Unusual Store.” Tom Larson and his brother, Greg, both followed their dad into the business. In fact, it’s the only job Tom Larson’s ever had.

Larson’s Salvage bills itself as a paint store. To this day, paint and painting supplies make up the bulk of its sales.“We like to say that it’s never the same store twice, just like the Mill End used to be,” Larson says. His wife, Lois, handles all the bookkeeping and paperwork.

The store takes up half a city block at the corner of Washington Avenue and Seventh Street. It’s chock-full of rakes, bungee cords, tarps, ladders, grass seed, gloves and, well, so much more.

The gallery’s name (C.A.T. Work Art Gallery)) is an acronym of Tom Larson’s children, Carl, Amelia, plus his own first initial.Over the decades, the Larson family has partnered with a wide range of manufacturers and distributors from across the nation. When they find a good deal, they bring the loads in and find a place for them … somewhere.

“Most of our sales at the store are related to paint and paint sundries,” he says. “But we have a tremendous selection of pocketknives, which people love. And entry mats, too.”

The store is located near Bay City’s one-way streets, so it’s highly recognizable.The store doesn’t normally carry much in the way of clothing. But Larson recently ran across an amazing deal on a load of Hanes T-shirts that he couldn’t pass up. As always, he kept the price low (two for $5), and they flew off the shelves.

“Literally hundreds of people have come in to buy T-shirts the last few weeks because it was such a good deal,” he says.

You never know exactly what you’ll find on the shelves of Larson’s Salvage.“So many people say, ‘We didn’t know this store was here! I’ve driven by this place for 10 years and always wondered about it, but never stopped.’ But once they come in and dig around a little bit, they almost always come back looking for more great deals.”

Just as there’s more to Larson Salvage Co. than meets the eye, there’s also more to Tom Larson.

Most of the artists whose work is displayed inside the gallery are without formal training. Larson says he favors work by outsiders.“Tom is really one of the creative gems of Bay City,” said Avram Golden, a Bay City-based photographer and owner of Golden Gallery & Custom Framing, 113 Third St.

Larson is an artist – although he downplays his talent and calls himself an assembler.

Larson’s Salvage was established in 1958. It’s the only place 66-year-old Tom Larson has ever worked.“I’ve always been a paint-thrower … a Jackson Pollock wannabe. My favorite thing to do is to take a pile of found items, and then recycle or up-purpose them and make them into something,” he says.

That’s when owning a store specializing in paint, hardware and “junk” comes in handy.

When Tom Larson finds a good deal on something, he makes room for it in his store. He creates Facebook videos highlighting deals of the day.“I’ve always used only materials that have come through Larson Salvage,” he says. “I’ve got a pretty deep knowledge of coatings and house paint from the store. Pollock actually used oil-based house paint. Using those kinds of materials, your work is going to be distinctive.

“You get a different result that initially made me stand out from the pack.”

A decade ago, Larson opened an art gallery next door to the family business with his children, Carl and Amelia. C.A.T. Work Art Gallery (an acronym made of the names of his son, his daughter and himself) featured the Larsons’ contemporary artwork as well as many other talented artists in the Great Lakes Bay Region.

My main concern was giving my children and my friends a place to show their work,” he says.

Tom Larson calls himself an assembler, saying his favorite kind of art is that he creates from found objects.Although Carl Larson died in 2011 and Amelia is busy raising three children right now, C.A.T. Work is still a vibrant destination for artists and art lovers. Larson also owns Midtown Arts, located in the same block.

“We’ve always tried to make our art galleries less traditional,” he says. “Typically, we embrace the idea of the outsider artist without formal training.”

From pocketknives to paint, Larson’s Salvage carries essentials.Golden says the artists Larson showcases are some of the best in the area.

Larson says he’s had less time in the last year to produce art but plans on returning to it eventually. For now, he’s just grateful to his customers for standing by the family business in this age of e-commerce.

Inside Larson’s Salvage, the offerings are at least as eclectic as the collection at the art gallery.“To be a mom-and-pop business that’s still here after 63 years is very uncommon. I consider it a blessing to be here and hope I can go another several years yet,” he says.