Hammacher Schlemmer, the pricey gadget store that started as a hardware outlet in New York's Bowery district in 1848, has located hair nets for the Duchess of Windsor, found Arabian horses for a maharajah, shipped rat poison to a countess in Italy and installed a cliff-side elevator for a South American industrialist.
In 1968, it retooled the Nixon family's White House closets with rotating racks and other devices.
When it's business as usual, though, the retailer is content to cater to the somewhat more down-to-earth needs--or, better, wants--of well-to-do gadget freaks who only thought they had everything.
Californians who have shopped via Hammacher Schlemmer's nine catalogues each year or at its two stores in Manhattan and Chicago can soon check out the unique devices on their own turf when a branch opens Friday on North Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, providing a diversion from the apparel and perfume boutiques.
In deciding to expand to Beverly Hills, "we looked at where the customers were," Richard W. Tinberg, president of Hammacher Schlemmer, said Wednesday on a tour of the store, where workers were installing display shelves and the walls were still wet with paint.
According to the company's research, Los Angeles ranks second only to New York in the number of households with annual incomes above $100,000. Such customers are more inclined than others, certainly, to plop down $400 for an automatic car mileage record keeper, $64.50 for a pith helmet with a solar-powered fan or $29 for the only device known to locate the sweet spot on a golf ball. Not to mention $48,000 for a half-size working version of an antique fire engine.
"We focus on two types of products," Tinberg said, "the unique and the best."
He classifies among the unique a Hovercraft lawn mower at $190 that "doesn't leave wheel marks." (It's akin to what side-burn trimmers do for Don Johnson of "Miami Vice.") And there's the $79-hand-crank radio for campers who don't want to be bothered with batteries.
To help establish which products are "the best," Hammacher Schlemmer three years ago established a research center in its home base of Chicago, where four employees test various brands of radios, videocassette recorders and appliances. Only the product at the top of each list passes muster for sale in the stores or catalogues.
From its rarefied position, Hammacher Schlemmer tends not to worry much about competition, although it acknowledges that its clientele overlaps somewhat with that of Sharper Image, another gadget-oriented operation. Brookstone, which Quaker Oats recently put on the block, also sells fine housewares and hard-to-find gadgets. In fancy espresso machines and other culinary gizmos, Hammacher Schlemmer vies with the likes of San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma.
This inclination to offer "the best and the only" dates to the company's roots as a hardware store for the carriage trade. It was founded by a German immigrant named William Tollner, whose nephew, William Schlemmer, started selling at the ripe age of 12 and gradually took over the business, forming a partnership with Alfred Hammacher.
The innovative store minted its own copper coins during the Civil War, was one of 271 original subscribers to the Bell System in New York and was one of the first businesses to use electricity. It also had the first auto parts department, even though there were at the time only 600 cars in the entire country, Tinberg said.
In the early 1900s, the salespeople wore frocks and the doormen donned tails. Bolts and screws were displayed on velvet in mahogany cabinets, from which Isaac Singer selected parts for his first sewing machine. Such nattiness also impressed the likes of Czar Nicholas of Russia, who bought one of everything the store offered in 1914, just four years before his execution.
Decades after Hammacher Schlemmer had moved uptown to 57th Street, in 1926, and evolved into more of a housewares store, it continued to supply wire for Alexander Calder's mobiles.
Through the years, Tinberg said, the store has continued to be innovative, occasionally too much so. "We were a little ahead of our time with a personal computer back in the early '70s," he said. "There was no software available."
But the store has been vindicated on several counts of selling products once considered frivolous but that have now become "household necessities"--such as the first Waring blender, the first electric razor and the first Mr. Coffee, a product that other retailers had rejected as having a limited market, Tinberg said.
The privately held company has estimated annual revenue of $30 million and, according to Tinberg, has enjoyed profit and sales growth of 20% to 25% in each of the past three years. It is owned by heirs of J. Roderick MacArthur, a Chicago philanthropist who bought the company for $4.7 million in 1980 from Gulf & Western.
As far as further expansion is concerned, Tinberg intends to be "very careful." After all, the company went 136 years before opening its second store, in Chicago. "We are looking at San Francisco," he said, "but we want to get this store off on the right foot.
"We don't do things with a lot of fanfare."
It is, however, trying to persuade the Italian countess to switch from rat poison to the company's sonic rodent killer.