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Fix-up on Aisle 2

Burned out on bars? Hookups are happening in unlikely places

Barbara Dalbey wasn't out to change her life when she walked into the Home Depot in Beaverton one day two years ago. She was just looking for bathroom fixtures.

'I was in the garden department, I think,' says Larry McKee, a sales associate with the home improvement chain. 'I saw Barb in the aisle down there, kind of staring up.' McKee, being newly single, thought it couldn't hurt to ask the fitness trainer if she needed help. So he did.

'She came back with something smart like, 'What gave you your first clue?' ' McKee says. Pheromones entered the transaction, and the two were off and running.

The shower he recommended for the bathroom she was remodeling seemed kind of small to her.

'I said, 'Well, would it fit two people?' ' she recalls. 'I was just being silly. I just threw it out there.'

'I said, 'Let's get in,' ' McKee remembers.

Two years and one remodeled bathroom later, McKee, a 48-year-old father of four, and Dalbey, 49, are coming up on their first wedding anniversary. 'I basically bought the shower, and he came with it,' Dalbey says.

Which raises the question: Why are people looking for their mates in restaurants and bars when large retail outlets might be the better bet?

'After a certain age, people get fed up with the bar scene,' says Scottie Johnson, owner of the local franchise of It's Just Lunch, a nationwide dating service. 'They have to get up and work in the morning.'

Johnson says moments like the one that brought McKee and Dalbey together are 'pretty random.' But they happen. 'Certainly there are people who meet in nontraditional arenas,' she says.

'I definitely didn't go in there thinking, 'Maybe I'll meet a guy,' ' Dalbey says. 'I could never find anything in there.'

Rule out the bar scene and the workplace. 'People don't want to date clients and co-workers and colleagues,' Johnson says, and what's left are the places where people go about their off-hours business: the mall, the grocery store and other routine stops.

But few single people meet others in the normal course of their day, Johnson says.

'Their lives are so busy. They don't have time to stop and pay attention to the externals,' she says. 'If you're looking at the ground and staring at your feet, you're not paying a bit of attention to your environment.'

Yet, so long as we're open to the idea, Johnson says, there's nothing far-fetched about retail romance.

'It's a one-on-one interaction in a safe place,' she says. 'It's safe to be pleasant and open up to people in that environment. It allows you to interact if you're open and receptive to your surroundings.'

Nothing contrived

'People come here in their natural state,' says Steve Oppenheim, co-owner of Hippo Hardware on East Burnside Street. 'They're not dressed for success. It's not a meat market.'

Hippo co-owner Steve Miller agrees that the retail environment provides a low-pressure setting in which shoppers are free to mix. Strangers find themselves together in a small but intimate subset of the confused or outright clueless, willing to lend each other a hand.

'You've got something to talk about,' Miller says.

Miller and Oppenheim, both married to former customers, said certain shopping demographics still break along traditional lines. 'It's real simple,' Miller says. 'Who's picking out the home dŽcor? Seventy-five percent of our customers are women.'

He says women often make the call when it comes to the kitchen and the bathroom.

'I've watched guys hitting on women over a light fixture,' Oppenheim says. 'A guy can come here and play the role of the helpless man. Women seem to enjoy helping helpless men in all of its innocence.'

'It's a ready-made chance to start a conversation,' says John Shaffer, warehouse manager at the Rebuilding Center, a drafty, overstuffed garage of a store on North Mississippi Avenue. 'We've got contractors coming in here; some of those guys aren't afraid to flirt. We have a lot of women contractors. It's pretty much across the board.'

Outside the store, Sellwood resident Denise Crosetti browses through an immense jumble of ceramic tiles, storm doors and kitchen sinks. She says meeting someone special in such a place hadn't occurred to her but admits to having her guard down.

'You're not trying to impress anyone or anything,' she says.

Love happens

Dalbey, who goes by Babs, says, 'When you least expect it, things happen.' She hadn't despaired of finding a mate, but she wasn't waiting around.

'I just never met the right person,' she says. 'You go through your bumps and grinds and wrong people and you think, 'I'm fine on my own.' '

She went about her life, content to leave romance on the back burner. 'I had the desire to have that, but I went ahead and bought a house and fixed it up and had a good career. I moved forward,' Dalbey says.

'I had made a decision to remodel and take on a huge project by myself and was so excited about the project my mind had no direction toward romance,' she says. 'The last thing I ever expected was to go into Home Depot and buy a toilet and a shower and find a husband.

'The meeting could have ended had one of us not opened our eyes,' Dalbey says. 'It was the banter and the silliness. You meet a person when you are being yourself.

'Larry probably wouldn't have pursued it had I not kept going back,' she adds. 'I was intrigued enough to tell my handyman that every time he went to Home Depot, I had to go with him.'

Dalbey says she never tires of telling people how she and her husband found love in the aisles before they walked down one together. 'They just laugh,' she says. 'They love the story.

'I actually met a stranger,' Dalbey says. 'It is as if we were meant to be together.'