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Ms. Fix-It

Local Author Allegra Bennett Praises Her Years In Rehab—Home Improvement, That Is

Sam Holden

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 5/31/2006

Allegra Bennett

Allegra Bennett had a choking victim in her basement. For 23 years, the garbage disposal in her ailing Victorian home would inevitably seize up if stuffed with too many leftovers, cuing her and her husband to perform their double-team routine—she poised over the sink with a plunger while he performed mysterious ministrations in the basement—until the pipes ran clear again. But after their divorce, Bennett was left with the Ashburton house and a disposal that predictably broke down while she was all alone. After a panicked call to her ex (wasn’t home) and a plumber ($75 just to show up), Bennett took a deep breath, walked down to the cellar, and faced the problem herself.

She recounts the eureka moment in her irresistibly titled book When a Woman Takes an Axe to a Wall (Where Is She Really Trying To Go?): “Imagine my surprise to find the drain coming out of the wall about eye level. Seated in the drain was a black rubber hose. . . . I deduced that shortening the hose would solve the problem.” Sure enough, a quick snip and the garbage disposal—plus the dishwasher, seldom used for the same backwash reasons—never clogged again. Remembering this long-ago triumph still thrills Bennett. “I figured out the problem and I fixed it permanently because I relaxed long enough to let my brain get in gear,” she crows. “And once I fixed it, it was like”—she smacks the table and shifts her register to a girlfriend-y singsong—“Hey! I’m pretty goo-od!

That moment of satori nearly two decades ago sparked Bennett’s transformation into the all-caps home-improvement guru allegra bennett. The new public face of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. isn’t just branded on three home-repair books but atop the cover of the “do-it-herself” quarterly Renovating Woman. The magazine’s message is clear: If you can frost a cake, vacuum a carpet, or machine-sew a pillowcase, you already know how to grout a tub, sand a floor, or miter cut a mail slot in the front door.

“It’s that fear that we [women] have,” Bennett says. “I understand. But I also know that if you deal with the fear you can get past it. Fear is like the big bully. And the big bully runs in the presence of Renovating Woman.”

Bennett’s world headquarters for this new “house work” revolution is a windowed space in the Urbanite magazine offices in the shabby-chic Clipper Mill complex. Even in sneakers and jeans, with a baseball cap pulled low over perfect twists of dove-gray hair, Bennett shimmers with the unpretentious demigoddess vibe some African-American women exude after a certain age. She bullet-points a particular truth with an eyes-closed “absolutely,” the first syllable held tight like a pinball on the firing pin before ricocheting out with maximum velocity.

A former journalist with stints at The Sun and The Washington Times, Bennett reached her new vocation with the help of several well-timed benefactors. She gained further expertise under the tutelage of the now-deceased—and dearly missed by Bennett—handymen Claude Sessoms and Handy Coulbourn. Once she’d gained enough knowledge to share, she pitched the idea of a weekly home-repair column to her then-bosses at the Times. They bit, and Bennett thought this was the ticket to the big time. “I sent the column out to syndicates,” she says, grumbling an indecisive growling noise to illustrate the syndicates’ lack of commitment. Luckily, a buddy at WBAL Radio heard of her travails and offered a regular on-air slot, a gig she held for over two years from 1991 to ’93.

After hearing her show, a literary agent called Bennett and wanted to know when her book was coming out. As Bennett recalls, “I don’t know what kind of drugs this woman was taking, but the more she talked the more I realized I could do it.” Bennett’s first book, Renovating Woman: A Guide to Home Repair, Maintenance and Real Men, was published in 1997 by Simon and Schuster, the first of three home-improvement manuals she’d pen in the next five years. How to Hire a Contractor was published in 2000, but her lucky streak ended with the disastrous launch of When a Woman Takes an Axe to a Wall in 2002. Before the book’s release, Bennett’s distributor declared bankruptcy and all copies of the book were warehoused per court order. Regrouping, Bennett recalled the constant requests from her growing readership for some kind of newsletter or journal and decided a magazine was her next step.

The glossy magazine that premiered in March 2005 held tight to her vision. The first two issues, while too skimpy on content to justify its $4.95 cover price, still contained practical, uncondescending how-tos on choosing energy-efficient windows or installing a wide-angle peephole. The third, current issue smartly moves to a classier comic-book size and matte stock. The content could still be beefier, but the confident look of the revamped layout wins more forgiveness.

“Lots of potential advertisers who looked at Renovating Woman and its mission as ‘cute’”—she hisses the slur—“which is like putting a knee in my gut when you call it that, are now saying, ‘Omigosh, there is this market of women who want to do home improvement that’s not just about curtains and drapes,’” she says. The most recent spring issue sports ads from Whole Foods, Ryobi Tools and, yes, Urbanite (who profiled Bennett in its July 2005 issue), and the inside front cover shows a little girl wearing contractor’s goggles measuring her dollhouse with a tape measure, captioned because . . . i can!

Renovating Woman is currently only available by subscription. The eventual goal is a presence on all chain bookstore newsstands, and it’s been accepted at several female-owned hardware stores in the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area, but Bennett admits that “the distribution part is weak right now.” She chooses her terms delicately when asked to describe the still-infant magazine’s solvency. “It’s not struggling like it used to, but it’s taking heavy-footed steps.”

But to nickel-and-dime Renovating Woman’s profit margin is to miss the success of Bennett’s bigger mission. On April 1, the magazine hosted an all-day seminar at Housewerks Architectural Salvage on Bayard Street, with workshops ranging from toilet repair to how to build a wine cellar. “We kind of planned on 150 people,” Bennett says. “Maybe we’ll get 185.

“We got 300 women!” Bennett shouts in disbelief. “We ran out of food—twice! And we had to shut down pre-registration earlier in the week. We told people, ‘No, you can’t pay at the door.’ They showed up at the door anyway. It’s amazing. There’s this pent-up need to do your own stuff, and nobody wants to show you how to do it, and if someone says they’re gonna show me, they’re showing up.” Encouraged by the overwhelming response, Bennett is planning a second workshop June 24 at the Marriott at Camden Yards and has long-term plans to take her seminars on the road.

And there’s even a happy ending for that waylaid third book. After a chance meeting with Shana Yarborough (founder of local publisher Writer’s Lair Books), Alexander offered to buy the publishing rights to When a Woman Takes an Axe to a Wall for a 2006 Writer’s Lair release. Bennett was wary at first, but a long phone call with Yarborough changed her mind. “I was really taken by her focus and her plan, not just for me, but for all her authors,” Bennett says. “There’s a lot of people with great ideas who can’t execute, but Shana has executed far beyond anything I could imagine. . . . I felt there was a hand that went on my shoulder the first time I spoke to her. And there was gold at the end of the conversation.”

There might be gold at the end of another conversation, too: Oprah Winfrey’s people have called Bennett while fishing for personalities to fill out Rachel Ray’s Harpo-produced program. No promises at this stage, but . . .

“It’s been a long time coming,” Bennett says, reflecting on her journey. “I’ve been doing this since 1991. Next thing you know you’ve got three books, you’ve got a magazine, you’ve got these workshops, it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got it.’”

Is she enjoying what she’s doing? There’s that spring-loaded “absolutely” again. “There’s some stressful moments, but when you have days like that April 1 event,” she says. “I can’t tell you of any negative person in my life right now. You come to a point when you say, ‘I don’t want that kind of energy around me, and I’m going to make it so it doesn’t happen that way anymore.’ And the more you say that and behave that way, who you need and what you need in your life pops up. So the ‘Free Allegra’ movement is in full gear.”

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