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L.A. at Large

A Fixture of a Hardware Store Closes

February 11, 1988|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

It's one of those old-time hardware stores that carries virtually everything including a motto: "If we don't have it, you don't need it." Or, as the employees prefer to phrase it, "It's here somewhere."

It's a place where a night light promotion once featured the owner's son sleeping in the window every night for a month, back lit with dozens of night lights.

Later, to reduce a surplus of irons, the store window starred a bikini-clad dummy ironing her panty hose beneath the sign, "Let's Bring Back Ironing." The irons not only sold out--customers placed orders for irons not in stock.

One of the most recent signs is a basic model in neon that reads simply "Open." Or "Shut," as the case may be.

But this is not a story about innovative merchandising or window dressing bordering on performance art. It's not even about hardware, though to many nuts-and-bolts pilgrims the place is one of the few remaining, genuine hardware store meccas.

No, this is a love story. It's a tale of service and devotion to a community through a small business and its owner, 73-year-old Mike Sweeney.

Best known as the owner of Sweeney's Hardware in Manhattan Beach, he's also a former Los Angeles Police Department sergeant, former mayor of Manhattan Beach, former city councilman, former PTA president and, as his customers will tell you, a merchant who's still willing to change light bulbs for the mechanically inept and hang onto spare keys for nearby residents who frequently find themselves locked out of their houses.

For some locals, this is a sad story, too, because at the end of this month, Sweeney will become the former owner of Sweeney's Hardware, which in its 22 years has become an institution of sorts in Manhattan Beach. A recent rent increase on the store property, situated at the corner of Highland and Rosecrans avenues, about two blocks from the ocean, hastened Sweeney's retirement.

"It's the saddest thing that's ever happened to the whole town," says architect David Martin, a Manhattan Beach resident who views Sweeney's as a sort of combination hardware store and political forum.

"You used to be able to go in the store and if you didn't like the way the city was being run, you could bitch to Mike about it," he adds, referring particularly to the 16-year period when Sweeney served on the City Council (the council members rotate the mayoral post among them, thus Sweeney has spent a total of three years as mayor).

An Amazing Place

"The place has always amazed me," Martin says. "I brought in a light fixture from Northern Italy once and asked Mike how to put an American light bulb into it. He pulled out a little 25-cent adapter. I had figured I would have to get a machine shop to make a part for it. He would carry all kinds of things nobody else had. You could get whippy washers (a popular Volkswagen part) and all the little metric screws.

"One of the things I always liked about Sweeney's was that virtually nothing came wrapped in a plastic bag. If you wanted one bolt, you could buy one bolt. Who knows what I'm going to do when they close?"

It's never been a brightly lit, carefully organized, antiseptically clean organization. It's folksy, some say even comforting to the shoppers who appear in slow, usually steady streams, frequently splotched with paint, grease or whatever material they've been using.

The plain spoken Sweeney doesn't hesitate to admit that the store has moved way beyond dusty. He readily admits, "It's dirty."

Merchandise is hung, stacked, stored, displayed from virtually every inch of the place, including the ceilings. A playpen has been a permanent fixture in the office, along with a 2-year-old baby who's come to work almost every day since birth with his mother, an employee of 10 years.

Sweeney's cocker spaniel Casey is also a semi-permanent resident who often greets customers, some of whom have decidedly sad looks in their eyes of late.

"It's a family-run business. Not one of those impersonal corporate stores where people just know the merchandise but not how to use it," explains son Gary Sweeney, an artist/baggage handler who worked at the store off and on for 17 years, attending to window displays among other duties, before he moved to Denver five years ago.

Gary Sweeney points out that his father didn't merely change light bulbs for little old ladies, "he'd rewire their whole chandeliers, and charge them maybe $5." And for all customers, the store provided a workshop in the back where people could come in and use the shop's tools for free.

"Or you could rent an extension ladder for $2 a day . . . a pipe wrench for 50 cents. It was like nothing, like a deposit," Gary recalls. "And dad was so patient with some of these people who'd come in with these idiotic projects. He'd tell them how to do the projects, write it all down for them and inevitably they'd come back in three hours with this big mess--that he'd help them fix.

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