Written by Margaret Budd
Photographed by Margaret Budd & Colleen Chalmers
Little dots of oil drip onto the sharpening rock before Dan Brewer starts to scrape the knife back and forth over the stone. His rough, aging hands are strong and precise with each stroke. The frayed ends of his long, gray beard are looped and tucked back into a braid, hiding behind his blue and purple tie-dyed apron.
Brewer sharpens knives at Wildflower Cafe, Japhy’s Soup and Noodles, and other restaurants in Arcata. He even sharpens scissors at Fabric Temptations and other businesses around town. After 30 years of sharpening, he still makes the 80-mile commute from his home in Briceland, Calif. every few weeks. “It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of convenience for the people,” he said.
Brewer was quite literally born with a knife in hand. The day he was brought home from the hospital, his grandfather placed a hunting knife made from Lancaster steel in his cradle. Brewer shrugs when asked if having a knife next to a newborn baby was alarming to anyone. Coming from a long line of hunters, it was not unusual. The knife was in a safe sheath. In fact, his three brothers also received one of these knives from their grandfather at birth. Working as a smith for Kennecott Copper in the 1930s in Ely, Nev. during a major steel shortage, his grandfather had stashed the Lancaster steel. Brewer is the only one in the family who still has that knife.
As Brewer grew up, he learned how to use knives and to sharpen his own. At 21, he served in Vietnam in 1965 on a small boat as a crew seamen, often cutting rope with another pocketknife his grandfather gave him. After the war, he made the decision to start raising and butchering his own meat in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “The whole thing in Vietnam was a hired-killer routine. If I was going to eat meat, I was going to raise it and slaughter it myself,” Brewer said.
He worked as a caretaker on a 280-acre farm in the Sierras with about 30 to 40 goats, which he milked, butchered and relied on for his main source of food. He always carried a stone in his pocket, sharpening knives and other tools throughout the day. He eventually started to carry the stone in a leather pouch in his pocket after discovering it’s abrasiveness. “For years, I just kept it in my pocket, and I couldn’t figure out why my pants kept wearing out.”
With no electricity in his mountain home, Brewer traveled to a Sonora hardware store to fill his kerosene jugs. Each time, he would sharpen the store owner’s pocketknife to be neighborly and share a skill, as Brewer puts it. The store owner suggested he start a business sharpening knives and scissors. With that, sharpening for exchange began. Brewer did not usually charge for his services; instead his customers would give him firewood, or share their other trades.
Knife sharpening brought Brewer closer to his other passion — writing. He would often attend poetry readings around California and meet other poets. Brewer especially admired Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American author from Texas, who he met through a mutual friend at one of the readings. She is an award-winning poet and was the chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2010. To make a connection, Brewer sent her scissors and knives that he sharpened. “I’ve always appreciated his selections, his general spunk, and his motto relating to knife-sharpening skills — ‘Stay sharp and shiny,’” Nye said.
He also met Mayumi Oda, a Buddhist artist from Japan and anti-nuclear activist. Her artwork is part of permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C and others around the country. She sends Brewer imagery for the broadsides he creates, which pair a poem and artwork on one page.
Brewer also collaborates with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kay Ryan and this year’s Academy of American Poets chancellor, Jane Hirshfield.
Brewer created a mail-a-poem project about 24 years ago — almost as long as he has been sharpening knives. His goal was to find poetry that could appeal to a wide audience. He sent the poems to about 17 friends twice a month to receive feedback. Soon, word traveled and more people asked to be on his mailing list.
Today, Brewer has 150 subscribers. They pay $2.50 a month for the broadsides that have artwork from Oda and a poem on them. He uses poems from authors he has worked with like Nye, Ryan and Hirshfield. He includes one of his own about once a year. “A well-written poem is going to take you somewhere you never would have imagined going,” he said.
Brewer realizes he is in a world of the lost arts. “The art of sharpening is lost. Poetry comes and goes, but it’s a lost art,” he said.
Back in Wildflower Cafe’s kitchen, Brewer checks each knife by swiftly running his finger along the blade. He starts sharpening on the coarse side of the stone, then slides his finger delicately across the blade again before flipping the stone to the fine side. He pauses in between sets of knives to scribble down the length and number of what he sharpened.
At Japhy’s Soup and Noodles, he receives free meals in exchange for his work. “I like to sharpen here,” he said. “I like to eat here.”
Japhy’s owner Josh Solomon appreciates Brewer’s jokes and stories. “Well, we have a little trade set up with him. I look forward to him coming here for more than just sharpening knives,” he said.
In the Japhy’s kitchen, Brewer talks with employees as he sharpens. “Got any new jokes today?” he asks them. Before he leaves, he orders a cold rice noodle salad with double chicken and peanut dressing — his usual.
Brewer explains sharpening the best way he can, through poetry. He is currently working on a poem titled “Two Hands and a Cradle,” which describes how he sharpens. “It’s these two hands,” he pauses and holds up both palms. “And this here is the cradle,” he says as he points to the device that keeps the stone from slipping while sharpening.
In all of his years working with knives, Brewer has only seriously cut himself once; it was while sharpening a knife in the Sierras to skin a squirrel. He was distracted by an attractive woman driving by in a red corvette, and the blade slipped off the stone and sliced his hand. Despite this mishap, Brewer says he does not take chances with knives. “I’ve slowed down. I don’t sharpen as much as I used to,” he admits.
At one point, he injured his right elbow so badly he could barely move it. Instead of taking a break, he taught himself to sharpen with his left hand for about a year until his elbow healed.
Brewer doubts he will ever quit sharpening. Still, he remains humble. “I’m just a poet who sharpens knives.”