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A Store of History in Somis : Hardware Stock Includes Common Nails, Common Sense

August 31, 1986|By THOMAS OMESTAD

The gardener from Ventura faced a vexing gopher problem. One of the varmints was tearing up squash and cucumber, and a low-tech, four-sided contraption known as a "California box gopher trap" had failed to do the job.

The gopher at his house was "very smart," he said.

Bob Fulkerson had just the thing.

The quiet, mustachioed owner of Fulkerson Hardware in Somis zeroed in on a shelf stocked with the implements of destruction--strychnine and a "gopher gasser," a flare-like explosive that burns oxygen out of rodent tunnels.

The gardener became another pleased customer at Fulkerson Hardware, a third-generation Somis institution at he corner of Somis Road and Rice Street that sells a dusty accumulation of rural wares.

Maze of Items

Those who insist on wandering unescorted through the shop's aisles and dark back rooms can easily get lost among the 50,000 items stocked.

Four cavernous rooms are filled with bins of nails, stacks of paint cans, galvanized tubs for washing dogs or chilling beer, hay hooks, kerosene lanterns, springs and sprockets, lean-to ladders for picking avocados, turnbuckles, eye bolts, U-bolts and other things.

Fulkerson, 32, said he rarely takes inventory of his stock. "You can see why," he said dryly.

Fulkerson took over the business from his father, Jack, in 1977, furthering a tradition that started in 1912 with Bob's grandfather, John. The Fulkersons have long been the most prominent family in town. James F. Fulkerson, John's brother, started a blacksmith shop in 1892 that was the first business in the town.

Jack Fulkerson, 72, Somis' unofficial mayor, fills in for his son at the hardware store during vacations. In sneakers and a plaid shirt, the easygoing Fulkerson scrambles nimbly over piled irrigation pipes to find the right size pipe for a rancher.

Museum in Shop

He maintains a museum in one corner of the shop, displaying heavy milk bottles from defunct dairies, Chumash Indian bowls and old photos of Somis, one taken in 1921 of his second-grade Somis School class.

Although a few browsers looking for agrarian curios swing through the store's creaky, double screen doors, most of the customers are growers and their field hands.

A parade of farmers driving pickups--dogs riding in the beds--stops in front of Fulkerson's from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sales are usually recorded on credit slips mailed to the ranches at the end of the month.

"Every customer has a different problem, and that makes it interesting," Bob Fulkerson said. "I know 90% of them by first name."

Fulkerson has a bachelor's degree in urban planning from San Diego State University, but came back to the hardware business because "I'd always been the mechanical one in the family."

He runs the business on passed-down equipment, a 1912 brass cash register and a accounting system that keeps credit slips on swinging metal sheets. But unlike his father and grandfather, he uses a microfiche viewer to order new stock.

"It's one concession I make to modernity--the only one, I think," Fulkerson said.

One of the quirkier delights of the hardware shop is a steel floor safe scorched from a 1921 explosion of nitroglycerin.

Hit By Safecracker

A professional safecracker blew open the safe and took about $100, Jack Fulkerson said. The safecracker shut the door of the inner safe, turned the bolt and spun the dial.

No one knew the combination, and the inner safe hasn't been opened since.

"A safe man came out from L.A. and wanted $100 to open it. My dad said, 'Hell, no,' " recalled Jack Fulkerson.

The Fulkersons believe only canceled checks lie within, so there's no hurry.

"It's a good conversation piece and one that doesn't cost you anything," reasoned Bob Fulkerson.

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