Declare Your Independents

As a lover of books, I’ve spent a lot of time in bookstores over the years. In doing so it didn’t take me long before I learned to appreciate the value of a good independent bookstore: the selection is better (chain stores are mostly filled with books that sell in volume) and the recommendations you receive tend to be much better. When my wife and I first moved to the Bay Area we were delighted to discover countless independent bookstores of all sizes, from small hole-in-the-wall specialty shops (such as we had in downtown Redwood City for a while; I remember a shop near the Fox that was primarily filled with mysteries and children’s books) to larger multi-outlet independents such as A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books (long since closed, alas). I developed a strong dislike for the chain stores—Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, Borders—since I viewed them as potential destroyers of my beloved independents.

When Amazon first came on the scene, I, being in the tech business, was both intrigued and delighted. I quickly learned the joy of, upon receiving a recommendation, pointing my browser to amazon.com and, after a few clicks, having the book show up on my doorstep days later. But as Amazon grew, I became horrified as I watched them steamroller over much of the book retailing industry. Not only did a number of independents close, I believe, due to Amazon’s existence but so did nearly all of the chains. In our area only Barnes & Noble remains, and they appear to be hanging on by a thread. Curiously, my opinion of those chains changed as I watched them struggle against Amazon. No longer did I view them as the enemy; they, too, were fighting for their very lives. These days I try to shop as much as possible at the few independents that remain. And on the rare occasion when it makes sense to purchase a book online, I point my browser to http://www.barnesandnoble.com.

Of course, Amazon isn’t the only company that has disrupted its core business. A handful of large hardware stores have done much the same with the hardware business. Home Depot and Lowes seem to be the Amazons of the hardware world, largely taking out the independents. Although Orchard Supply Hardware (on Middlefield, near Woodside Rd.) has been around for quite some time, they don’t seem to have had the impact on the little guys that Home Depot (on Old County Rd., in San Carlos) has had. Just off the top of my head, I can think of three smaller hardware stores that have folded in recent years, stores that I once happily patronized:

  • Redwood City Hardware was in Roosevelt Plaza (at 2163 Roosevelt Ave.). This store was in a very convenient location for me, especially given that we often shop at the nearby Key Market.
  • Ace Industrial Hardware & Supply was at 1668 Industrial Rd in San Carlos (near Bing St.). I didn’t shop here often, but when you needed a particularly odd-sized nut, bolt, or spring, they were your best bet. Now? Good luck…
  • White Oaks Hardware was on Laurel St., at St. Francis Way. This was a very small store, but if you just needed an electrical outlet or a screw or something, they were a good choice. Nowadays, of course, this is the site of Johnston’s Saltbox restaurant. Given that Johnston’s Saltbox is one of my favorite local restaurants, I definitely have mixed feelings about losing White Oaks Hardware.

While Home Depot may have lower prices, you often get what you pay for. A couple of things that were particularly great about the smaller stores: if you just needed a couple of items, you could get in and out much quicker than at either Home Depot or Orchard since the parking was much easier and the lines at the cashier were generally shorter. As well, when you actually needed some help, you were far more likely to get in-depth knowledgeable help than you do from your average Home Depot employee (assuming you can even find someone to help you). Oh, and before someone says “but weren’t some or all of those stores part of the ACE Hardware chain?” I’ll point out that ACE (and True Value, for that matter) is a co-operative. While the ACE branding gives them both recognizability and some large-scale buying power, they are still independent in the sense that they are individually owned and operated stores. Thus I think of them more along the lines of true independent retailers, rather than large corporations such as Home Depot.

With the closing of those three small stores over the years, your choices for hardware in our area have pretty much been reduced to Home Depot and Orchard. For the last couple of years I’ve been giving most of my business to Orchard, viewing them as the underdog (financially, Orchard Supply Hardware hasn’t been doing well; they have closed a number of their stores over the last couple of years). But now, amazingly, we have another option:

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Hassett Hardware is opening up at 282 Woodside Rd., in Woodside Plaza. If you are familiar with the center, they have taken over the storefront formerly occupied by McWhorter’s Stationers. The latest in a small chain of hardware stores—they currently have stores in Half Moon Bay, Palo Alto, San Mateo (that one used to be Wisnom’s Hardware), and Willow Glen—the Hassett family is pleased to be opening their latest store here in Redwood City. And incidentally, they’re hiring!

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Hassett Hardware seems to be known for great customer service, that being the founder’s philosophy since their beginning in 1957. I’m excited that they’ll be joining our community, and I look forward to patronizing them in the future. Hopefully they have the right formula, one that will keep an independent business thriving in our modern economy.

I am well aware that running a small business is tough. As I watch businesses such as Redwood City Nursery close, I have been thinking a lot about whether a small business can survive in our modern economy. Companies such as Amazon and Home Depot may be making it harder in some sectors, especially when times get tight and people focus primarily on low cost. But it does appear that, for some, good customer service can be the key to not only to surviving, but thriving. Hassett Hardware seems to be one example of a business that is thriving even in the face of great competition.

Not being a coffee drinker, I see all the new coffee-related ventures springing up around the city and wonder if it is service, or possibly the product that allows them to successfully compete with the likes of Starbucks and Peets. My wife dearly misses Main Street Coffee Roasting Company (thanks to everyone who pointed out that my interpretation of their farewell note was a bit off, and that it has become a Lutticken’s, not “Sodoi Coffee”), but with their passing she has started investigating other independents and is delighted with what she is finding.

In the area of prescription drugs, Walgreen’s and CVS have taken the lion’s share of the business, but we still try to patronize one of our local independents: Jefferson Plaza Pharmacy. Located on Jefferson Ave. between Upton and Alameda de las Pulgas, we never have problems parking—as opposed to either CVS in Sequoia Station or Walgreen’s on El Camino, at least ever since Trader Joes became their neighbor—and we always receive excellent service.

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While saving money is very important, I believe we need to carefully consider the impact that our shopping habits have on our local community. It is all well and good to talk about wanting a vibrant community full of a wide variety of shops, but unless we are willing to put our money where our mouth is and patronize those shops, we aren’t going to get what we’re asking for. I strongly encourage everyone to spend time exploring the new shops and restaurants in Redwood City. There are some real gems here! (I’ve mentioned it before, but do pay a visit to University Art on El Camino in Redwood City; you’ll be glad you did). And next time you need something from the hardware store, rather than automatically pointing your car towards Home Depot, head on over to Woodside Plaza and see what Hassett Hardware has to offer (after Halloween, anyway; they likely won’t be open before that). I’m certainly looking forward to checking out this latest addition to Redwood City’s retail scene, and hope that they have what it takes to become my “go to” place for hardware. Now if we can just get someone to open up an independent bookstore…

Weigh in on Housing

Knowing that a number of you are interested in Redwood City’s housing situation (particularly in the area of affordable housing), I’d like to point out that Redwood City’s draft 2015-2023 Housing Element, an amendment to the City’s General Plan, is now up on the web for review and open for public comment. According to the description provided by the city, the Housing Element “addresses existing and future housing needs of persons in all economic segments and serves as a tool for decision-makers and the public in understanding and meeting housing needs in Redwood City.” On October 20 at the City Hall Council Chambers there will be a meeting at which we members of the public can weigh in and make our opinions heard. I plan to be there, and if you, like me, have strong feelings about the future direction our city should be taking with regard to housing, you should be too.

6 thoughts on “Declare Your Independents

  1. Menlo Park’s storied Kepler’s bookstore is an survival is a remarkable anomaly … it has faced closure numerous times for various reasons, but their customer base, together with undisclosed affluent community “angel” investors, have managed to keep it bumping along.

    Even if RWC had the same demographic$ and community goodwill toward a similar store of its own — which it doesn’t — how could two Kepler’s-like independent stores survive less than 3 miles down ECR from each other when one barely can? in this age of Amazon.com, e-readers and big-box discounters like Wal-Mart and Costco — I’m afraid this sort of bookstore is (unfortunately) from a bygone era. While a dwindling number have managed to hang-on, you won’t see many (if any) new ones opening anymore.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kepler's_Books

    Nearly 450 rally to help ‘save Kepler’s’
    From elders to toddlers, crowd cheers for Kepler’s as passersby honk
    http://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2005/09/06/nearly-450-rally-to-help-save-keplers

    Can this bookstore be saved? Clark Kepler says investors have stepped forward who could resurrect Kepler’s books; landlord appears willing to negotiate.
    http://www.almanacnews.com/morgue/2005/2005_09_07.keplersa.shtml

    Rewriting the Ending
    The unfortunate demise and surprising rebirth of a very special business.
    http://www.inc.com/magazine/20060401/kepler.html

    • I remember the rally for Kepler’s well–I was there. I continue to support them even as I watch them shrink. How could a competitor survive in Redwood City? Not sure, but perhaps a specialty shop–a mystery bookshop, for instance, or one that specializes in Science Fiction–that does online and through-the-door business could make it. I’m sure your right that we won’t see many new ones opening, unfortunately. But I’m working hard on filling out my collection of physical books, hoping against hope that books don’t go 100% digital, at least in my lifetime…

    • I shall. And I’ll remind my wife about Back Yard Coffee. I know she’s been there once or twice. As for Kepler’s, I’m with you – I love them and wish we had something like them in Redwood City. But until we do, I’ll keep driving to Menlo Park–and I’ll keep patronizing Encore Books. Be sure to check them out if you haven’t yet.

  2. Books Inc. is the area chain ( 6 or 8 locations ? ) that seems to be able to make things work . I’d love to see them try a Redwood City location.

    • Indeed, Books Inc. (who also owns the two “Compass Books” stores in the SF airport; I didn’t know that!) is a great independent. I’ve mostly patronized the Mountain View store (on Castro) but I believe that they also had a store in Stanford Mall for a while–I used to shop there as well. I agree that they would make a great addition to our burgeoning retail scene.

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