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Nuts, Bolts and Know-How

The Southland's old-time hardware stores offer conversation, camaraderie and a level of service that's become 'a tradition.'

March 09, 1997|JOHN MORELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; John Morell is a Woodland Hills freelance writer

They're those places you zip past while going here or there--nondescript, perhaps an aged sign above the door, as worn and forgotten as an old pair of shoes.

But step inside one of the many old-time hardware stores in Southern California, and there's a good chance you'll be greeted like an old friend.

"There's a level of service at the corner hardware store that's kind of a tradition," said Chaz Eisner, who runs the Beverly Hills Handyperson, a home repair service. "It's not something you find very often nowadays."

In this age of giant home centers that hold enough materials to build a tract of three-bedroom houses, a good number of "mom-and-pop"-style hardware stores are still around, clinging to their slivers of market share.

"There's room for both," says Steve Smith, a general contractor from Santa Ana. "I don't think the little hardware stores will ever really disappear."

Vince Staten, a writer from Prospect, Ky., grew up in and around the hardware stores owned by his father and wrote a book "Did Monkeys Invent the Monkey Wrench?" (Simon & Schuster, 1996) about their "culture." He enjoys wandering the aisles and finding unusual tools and parts. "Every store has its own unique smell," he said. "Wood, glue, paint, used motor oil. I like the sales guys, the owner, the customers. It's like a little community. The town of Hardware, population varies.

"Any hardware store that has been around for a while will have something left over from a previous era," Staten said. "The most unusual item I've seen in a hardware store was at a place in North Carolina. The guy had a leftover casket--I didn't want to ask how a casket got leftover in the first place."

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Although funerary supplies might be hard to find in local hardware stores, shopping at your local hardware dealer can bring some surprises. "The key is to shop locally when you're looking for something unusual for your house," Eisner said. "An old hardware store that's been around since the homes in your area were built may still have replacement parts to that old wall heater you have, or maybe they have tile that matches your kitchen counters."

The products can vary greatly in smaller hardware stores, and some specialize in being the source for certain items.

Missing a cabinet knob? Koontz Hardware in West Hollywood has a display of them that's 10 feet high and stretches 80 feet long. Need an odd lightbulb for that strange lamp you got from Aunt Martha? Pioneer Lucerne Hardware in Beverly Hills features display after display of bulbs in all shapes, sizes and wattages.

"Selections of items tend to be more interesting at the neighborhood hardware stores," Eisner said. "They often work with many more vendors than the larger stores, so you may find extension cords in several different colors, or some state-of-the art flashlight."

"To survive, the smaller stores have had to really cater to their local neighborhoods," Smith said. "Wherever you go in Southern California, you can pretty much count on the big home centers to have all the same merchandise. The little stores, though, might have animal feed in rural areas, or boat parts near the ocean, or party supplies if they're in an upscale area where people throw lots of parties."

Once you've found a local hardware dealer, the key to using it effectively is to take advantage of the service.

"I always tell people to go into the store with all the information they have about their project," Eisner said. "Bring along a diagram, a photograph, a part number, everything you have. The person helping you can often tell you what you need to do or show you a better way of doing it."

This kind of one-on-one approach is what the small hardware store is famous for. "They'll often custom-cut lumber or glass for you, make keys, thread pipe, fix screens and do a lot of things they may not advertise," he said.

"We recently had a customer who was looking for a device like a 3-foot-long turkey baster that he could use to clean out the bottom of his aquarium," said Dean Wilson of Koontz Hardware. "We had some of our guys look at the baster, then they took some PVC pipe and a bushing and a few other parts and they made this 3-foot-long aquarium cleaner. We didn't make a lot of money on it, but we got a happy customer."

The managers and clerks of smaller hardware stores are usually very familiar with the parts and tools they carry. "When the salesman starts explaining to you how to use an item, ask him if he's ever used it," Staten suggested. "If he hasn't, ask for someone who has. You can't learn hardware from a diagram; ask anyone who's ever tried to assemble a Christmas present from the instructions. And any hardware store worth its salt will have at least one guy who's used a particular item."

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