By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Don't be fooled by the aprons. These women aren't baking cookies.
They know how to wield a hammer, slice through wood with a miter saw, apply grout, handle concrete, make fountains -- and how to have fun doing it.
They aren't really widows, mind you, but rather married women who escape from their husbands every other Monday to learn new tricks at the Home Depot on S Dale Mabry Highway.
Tuesday's lesson: mosaic tile.
The head teacher: Debbie Presley, wearing a black dress with a flower pattern, her long fingernails filed to perfection, hands covered in tile dust and grout.
"My husband's at home watching the children," said Stephanie Mercer, attending the class with her mother-in-law, Cookie Mercer. "He just got back from hunting for deer in Georgia. So this is my outlet."
Home improvement warehouses aren't just for the guys anymore. In fact, they haven't been for a long time.
A Harvard University study in 2001 showed that home ownership rates for female-headed households rose to 53 percent in 2000, up 5 percent from the early 1980s.
And single women are the second largest group of home buyers after couples, according to a report from the National Association of Realtors. They accounted for 15 percent of home buys in 2001, compared with 7 percent by single men, the report stated.
Such figures have chains like Home Depot, Lowe's Home Improvement and Ace Hardware scurrying to court women.
In recent years, Lowe's has added lines of stock from Laura Ashley, Alexander Julian and Waverly. Ace Hardware recently added a section to its Web site devoted to answering home improvement questions, with about 65 percent of the questions so far coming from women.
Home Depot has uncluttered its aisles, added decor displays dubbed "the Design Place" and supported do-it-yourself clinics for women, like the one held Monday.
"Eighty percent of our decisions are based on (the influence) of women," said Fred Skinner, an assistant manager at the Gandy store who helped start the Widows' clinics. "For a long time, Home Depot was a boys' club.
"Now we try to make sure the customers who are making the decisions have something to do here."
The group will meet every other Monday the rest of the year from 7 to 9 p.m. Upcoming projects include glass etching and holiday wood cutouts.
Anyone is welcome to join. Just bring some creativity and a penchant for power tools, and you'll fit in fine.
Oh, and it's probably a good idea to leave the old man at home.
"This lets him have some time alone," said Kathryn Bodnar, who came with her 14-year-old daughter Allison. "He can do his woodworking, or he can just veg out if he wants to.
"After he has the dishes done."
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