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‘City desk’ in the trades: Is it a regional term?

The term shows up on “ghost signs,” but also on signs for currently existing companies and around warehouses, usually on a non-public door or the bottom of a sign, in industrial parks.

It’s easy to find references to city desks in the Twin Cities, Greater Minnesota, and in the Dakotas.
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

A few years ago, my friend Kurt and I were discussing a plumbing or hardware issue of one kind or another, and he made an off-hand reference to checking for something at a local “city desk.”

I asked why the local newspaper would have plumbing supplies.

No, no, no, Kurt said. Not that sort of city desk. He meant the city desk you find at lumberyards, small manufacturers, and electrical and plumbing supply houses. It’s like the will-call window, he said, the place where you order or pick up your stuff. 

“City desk” was a phrase I’d never heard before — or not in the context of lumberyards and plumbing suppliers, anyway. The definition of “city desk” that I knew about was the one you find in the dictionary, which is “the newspaper department that handles local news.” That’s a somewhat antiquated term in journalism these days – the city desk now handles news for the “metro section” – but it’s still one that you hear in a newspaper context once in a while. Even in the largest dictionaries, like the OED, it’s the only given definition for the term.

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After my conversation with Kurt, though, I’d start seeing the phrase all over the Twin Cities. Mostly, it’d turn up on what James Lileks has called “ghost signs,” those faded advertisements hand-painted on the sides of commercial brick buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that remain long after the associated businesses have disappeared: former warehouses, small manufacturers, building supply companies. But I’d also see it in small letters on signs for currently existing companies and around warehouses, usually on a non-public door or the bottom of a sign, in industrial parks.

city desk sign
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
City desks mostly appear on “ghost signs.”

And of course, in the phonebook. It’s all over the phonebooks. City desks are listed at Drywall Supplies Co. in St. Michael and Advance Shoring in St. Paul. There’s one at each location of the Pipeline Supply Company in Hopkins, Ham Lake, Grand Rapids, Monticello and Oakdale. There’s another at the Dakota Supply Group. Western Steel and Plumbing of Bismarck and Minot both have city desks. Viking Electric Supply of Minneapolis has at least three city desk employees. Says Border State Enterprises of Fargo on its website: “No matter where we serve our customers, our City Desks and Will Call locations are always staffed with employee-owners willing to go the extra mile.”

It’s a phrase that’s out there, but seems only to be used by people in the know. For example, on one unreasonably crabby online review, a guy said this of a local supplier: “Their voice response system listed a bunch of names and one extension called ‘City Desk.’ ” He then adds, with a touch of irritated bewilderment: “I don’t know what that means.”

I began to wonder if this was a regionalism. It’s easy to find references to city desks in the Twin Cities, Greater Minnesota, and in the Dakotas. Look beyond that, though, and anything you might find in reference to city desks elsewhere in the rest of the U.S. has to do with journalism. No references to non-newspaper city desks anywhere in the New York Times, from 1858 to present. A look through the Yellow Pages in New York City, Houston, and Seattle don’t turn up anything approaching a city desk as a supplier will-call counter. Same with web searches: city desks in industrial suppliers and warehouses all over the western Great Lakes and northern Great Plains, but not much anywhere else.

To test this theory, I called large plumbing supply warehouses on opposite sides of the country: one in Portland, Maine, and another in Portland, Ore. I asked if I could be connected to the city desk. Both of the people that picked up the phone said almost the exact thing: “City … what?” Then a baffled pause. Then: “Uh, this is a plumbing-supply place.”

I told the person in Maine I thought the “city desk” was what the will-call counter was called. “Uh-huh,” she said skeptically, clearly believing I was a misinformed rube. “Yeah, we don’t sell to the public.” I realize this isn’t a very scientific approach, but it seemed to confirm my suspicions. 

To find out, I talked to a few plumbers, electricians, and city desk employees around the Twin Cities, and visited a few city desks to find out if this is in fact a regionalism, or an industry-wide term.

Erik Nelson, master plumber at Erik Nelson Plumbing in south Minneapolis, isn’t so sure about the regionally specific aspect: “I started my plumbing career in San Francisco, California, and the term ‘city desk’ is used there, too. It is also used in Rochester, New York. So maybe it’s national.”

Nelson makes a distinction, describing the city desk as a public pickup desk, versus one meant only for contractors: “The city desk is the counter you go to for parts and common fixtures. Some supply houses might have showrooms with upscale fixtures and things like carpet. The city desk is usually very separate from these areas.

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“It’s not a hard and fast rule, but if a place has a city desk, you probably don’t belong there or aren’t really welcome there unless you are a licensed member of the given trade.” Maybe the best information of all: “Another common characteristic of a good city desk is the presence of popcorn, doughnuts, hot dogs and coffee.”

gopher plumbing city desk
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
“People ask for what they want, and you get it for them.”

Ethan Rakow, at Gopher Plumbing Supply in St. Paul, confirms the ambiguity of the phrase. “I tell people I work at the city desk at a warehouse, and they say, ‘What is that?’ I tell them it’s like a bartender’s job. People ask for what they want, and you get it for them. People come in for onesie, twosie stuff, or some contractors come in with a few pages worth.” Gopher Plumbing Supply’s city desk sells to both the public and to contractors.

“I’ve never figured it out,” says Brian Hill at Air Engineering and Supply in Seward, when asked about the term’s origins. He jokes that they used to call it “the sitting desk,” then goes to check with some of the older employees in the back to see if they know anything about the term’s origins. He comes out a moment later and shakes his head. “Nope, none of them know, either.”

air engineering and supply
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Air Engineering and Supply has been in the location since the early 1950s, and Hill says the term “city desk” is probably a holdover from that time and before.

“I imagine it’s because that’s just the way it was,” he says. “We did it because grandma said to do it, and she did it because her grandma said that’s the way to do it.” Air Engineering and Supply has been in the location since the early 1950s, and Hill says it’s probably a holdover from that time and before. Out front, the door is labeled “City desk / Will call,” as if it’s an Upper Midwestern-to-Standard American English translation.

I asked Ethan at Gopher Supply where he thought the term came from, and he said this: “It might have referred to any retail originally, where anyone could come in and pick up what they needed, and maybe it just became a contractor sort of thing over time.”

Courtesy of Hennepin County Library
A Minneapolis Morning Tribune advertisement from 1919 refers to a city desk.

The historic record seems to confirm Ethan’s theory. The phrase starts showing up in advertisements in the Minneapolis newspapers around 1907, in relation to hardware stores and dry-goods houses, seemingly as a synonym for customer-service desk. Perhaps it did pick up more specificity over time. The term still turns up occasionally in the local papers, primarily in obituaries for men and women who’d worked at the city desk at various local warehouses and suppliers.

I can’t definitively confirm that “city desk” is a bona fide a regionalism, but if it is, it seems to me at least as interesting as our region’s much-ballyhooed “duck duck gray duck” or “bubbler” variations. Next time you need a spigot or compressor, call up your local supplier and ask for the city desk with pride. They’ll know what you mean.