Bay Area hardware stores battle through a crazy year

In San Francisco, the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn have hit many local businesses like a ton of bricks. But for a select few sectors, business has been booming, from the grocery stores that saw mobs of panic-buyers to the gardening centers overwhelmed by bored quarantiners starting victory gardens.

So, what about our neighborhood hardware stores, trustworthy bastions of power tools and cleaning supplies? Are they crazy-busy from the legions of people taking on home improvement projects, or struggling to survive? Four of our favorite local spots told us how they’re doing, from enduring multiple burglaries to seeing soaring sales on unexpected items.

Cliff’s Variety

While business has generally been OK in 2020 at Cliff’s Variety in the Castro, general manager Terry Asten Bennett said they’re forecasting a rough fourth quarter. A lot of the store’s sales come from gifts, souvenirs and seasonal items, and with Halloween effectively canceled and the December holidays up for debate, it could be a tough three months. Sales in September were trending 10% down, when they had only been 5% down over the summer months.

“It’s a balancing act,” Asten Bennett said. “I’m so grateful we got to be open this whole time but it still really hurts. Normally our fourth quarter carries us. We’ve forecasted a bad Halloween.”

While certain department’s sales are up — she said jigsaw puzzle sales have grown 300% — she said the lack of tourists buying gifts, souvenirs and novelty items is hurting their bottom line. She also said school supply sales have been down as kids stay home for distance learning. Most of all, Asten Bennett said she thinks some people are still just scared to go to stores and are choosing online shopping over a traditional retail experience. “We’re also getting really hurt by the Amazon effect,” she said. “People aren’t shopping local even though they’re a block away. That hurts all retail out there.”

Other items usually less popular, like cookware and anything in the home improvement arena, have been in high demand. “I think everyone has painted every room in their house at this point,” Asten Bennett said with a laugh. “Painting is finally slowing down. With every new cooking trend, cookware goes up.”

Terry Asten Bennett poses in front of a large wall of fabric at Cliff’s Variety in the Castro.

Blair Heagerty / SFGATE

She said while she’s happy to see the restaurants coming back and getting creative with outdoor dining, the number of parklets in the neighborhood eliminates needed parking spaces for people shopping at the store.

“The number of parklets popping up has made parking decrease dramatically and that shows an immediate hit to our businesses,” Bennett said. “If you want to have a community on the other side of this you have to find a way to support your local businesses.”

Asten Bennett said they feel fortunate that they own the building, meaning the only landlord they have to bargain with is themselves. This has helped her be able to put her employees first whenever she can, including buying the staff lunch from neighborhood restaurants every day from March through June.

“In the beginning there wasn’t a day where [a customer] wasn’t screaming at us,” Asten Bennett said of enforcing new rules due to COVID-19. “My staff is putting themselves out there. Employees need good mental health. I had to put my staff first.”

Cole Hardware

Cole Hardware President Rick Karp said he’s also most concerned for his employees during this time. The mini-chain (there are nine Bay Area Cole Hardwares) started paying employees an extra $2 per hour in April. They still haven’t lowered that extra pay, and Karp said he thinks they’re one of the last businesses that haven’t cut hazard pay. “Our staff early on was petrified. They were glad to have a job but they were extremely scared,” Karp said. “For those that are working, we’re doing everything we can to ensure their safety.”

Across the nine stores, overall business is up 10%. While sales at neighborhood stores may be up as much as 30%, some stores are “in the tank,” Karp said, like the 4th Street store in SOMA. He said that store was frequented mostly by tourists, SOMA office employees and those that put on nearby conventions. All of those customers have evaporated. Sales at the 9th Street store in SOMA are also lower than normal.

As some employees choose to stay home and overall sales are up, the company’s biggest challenge is hiring. “You would think there would be a lot of people looking for work but there aren’t,” Karp said. “It’s an interesting dynamic. When the government was giving another $600 a week it did soften the employment market… We’ve been trying to hire a delivery driver for five months. These are full-time, fully benefited roles.”

San Francisco’s neighborhood hardware stores are weathering the pandemic’s challenges, from toilet paper panic-buying to difficulty hiring staff.

Blair Heagerty / SFGATE

The supply chain is still a struggle for both Asten Bennett and Karp as they both said they need to continuously be creative to make sure popular items stay in stock. “It’s the Wild West of procurement,” Karp said. “It’s kind of fun in a way, but it’s a lot of work. You have to stretch your imagination to find new places.”

Karp said they also have sold more puzzles than they ever before, selling more than 1,000 over the past six months. He said their workout equipment has also been popular and hard to keep in stock, but most notably they added hair grooming items to the store for the first time. Karp said he had to call up his barber when salons were still closed to ask where he sourced his supplies so he could source some for the store.

Phillip, left, and Eunice Ashizawa pictured in front of their hardware store, Soko Hardware.

Blair Heagerty / SFGATE

Soko Hardware 

It’s great when your local hardware store can quench your pandemic puzzling habit, but others feel most at home in a store that supplies Japanese whetstones, sake bottles, shoji paper and Buddhist shrines. For Japantown residents, that place is Soko Hardware, a fixture of the neighborhood since 1925 that has been in the Ashizawa family for four generations.

“I think of us as being one of the anchors to Japantown as far as the Japanese identity of this area,” said Philip Ashizawa, who co-owns Soko Hardware with his wife Eunice. “There’s only a few of the original Japanese-owned businesses left.”

In addition to their usual sales of Japanese cookware and woodworking tools, Soko Hardware has been selling out of potting soil and canning supplies during the pandemic — particularly pint-sized mason jars that restaurants are using for takeout cocktails.

The street level of Soko Hardware is filled with sunlight and paper lanterns.

Blair Heagerty / SFGATE

That said, Ashizawa said that sales are down slightly across the board, as tourism, which has ground to a halt, is usually a large part of their business. The store has also been broken into twice over the past few months.

“They smashed through the door windows and crawled in,” said Ashizawa. “But it was just whatever they could carry with them, so it wasn’t a whole lot.”

In their 95 years of business, the only time the store has ever shut down was during World War II, when Ashizawa’s grandparents and parents were relocated to internment camps. So while the pandemic is an unprecedented time, they have seen worse — Ashizawa thinks they will be just fine.

“I guess it’s just kind of a keep-your-head-down, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of thing,” he said.

Karl Aguilar, second from right, poses with his staff outside of Papenhausen Hardware.

Blair Heagerty / SFGATE

Papenhausen Hardware

Meanwhile, at Papenhausen Hardware in West Portal, gardening supplies are still flying off the shelves.

“I can’t even fathom how much soil we sold this year. And seeds,” said co-owner Karl Aguilar. “We’ve always sold that stuff, but we went from an order every 4 to 6 weeks to an order every week.”

Still, it’s not like their overall sales are skyrocketing right now — business is pretty normal, compared with, well… 2017. That was the last “normal” year for Papenhausen. In 2018, the hardware store, which has been a neighborhood staple since 1936, went up in flames for the second time in its history (the first being back in 1998). After a year of being closed, they reopened in a temporary space before finally moving back to their original location at 32 West Portal Ave. Just when they were getting settled, the pandemic hit.

“We were still getting our sea legs back being in our old location when this hit, so it just kind of went from one struggle to another struggle,” said Aguilar. “… We’ve had a lot of adversity over the years, and adapting becomes part of your life. Things are just harder or less hard.”

COVID-19 has brought with it a new set of challenges for Papenhausen, from supply chain issues with toilet paper to having to discourage customers from taking on home improvement projects in the scary early days of the pandemic.

San Francisco’s neighborhood hardware stores are weathering the pandemic’s challenges, from toilet paper panic-buying to difficulty hiring staff.

Blair Heagerty / SFGATE

“There was a point early on where we were at our limit trying to meet demands, so if someone wanted to come in and talk about sanding down something, we couldn’t do it,” recalled Aguilar. “We would love to do it, but not in the middle of a pandemic with a line of people waiting outside.”

Now, as panic-buying has calmed down, they’re willing to slow down and give customers some pointers — Aguilar is just surprised to see the ambitious scale of some of these projects.

“The one that surprises me is the people who decide to retile or regrout their bathrooms,” he said. “And people are taking on painting their houses … just given where these people were six months ago, it’s surprising.”

Regardless of whether they’re starting a garden or learning how to fix a toilet, the personalized, community-oriented touch of Papenhausen keeps West Portal neighbors coming back.

“We’re helping people with projects with a sense of stability, and that’s what people like,” said Aguilar. “They know we’re embedded in the community and we built the store around the needs of the community.”

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