A treasure trove for the city's builders and DIYers, Center Hardware is one of the few remaining independent hardware stores left in the age of Amazon—and now it has a new HQ, packed with all the trappings a maker (or burner) could want.
There are literally thousands of reasons to shop Center Hardware's new 20,000 square-foot retail space on Third Street in Dogpatch: The 65,000-item inventory includes 500 different cans of spray paint, a head-turning assortment of obsession-worthy Yeti coolers, and a shop-in-shop devoted to the legacy power tool brand Milwaukee. Whether you're looking for discontinued Victorian hinges or toilet flappers, the long-time staff (one employee has worked there for 39 years!) has seen and knows it all. And, a friendly concierge desk is there to problem-solve, not to judge.
"The burners all show up right before Burning Man—we love hearing about their camps and art installations," says proprietor Jamie Gentner. "They come here for metal, lighting ideas, batteries, headlamps, tools, and Yeti. It's an incredibly creative community."
Some may be surprised to learn that the iconic hardware haven is helmed by a woman: Jamie Gentner is Center's fourth-generation owner; she's minded the store (formerly located on Mariposa Street in Potrero Hill) with her father, Keith Gentner, since 1980. If you count Keith's previous store, Ocean View Hardware, Center Hardware and the family's predecessor stores have served San Francisco since the late 1800s.
Here, Jamie Gentner talks to 7x7 about Center's grand re-opening and the city, then and now.
7x7: When you closed the Mariposa Street location last December, some people thought you had permanently closed. Do you want to set the record straight?
Jamie Gentner: It was very hard to combat that message—many of our customers aren't on social media [all day], they are working with tools on job sites. Our new location has plenty of parking, wider aisles, and isn't as cold. We are one of the few people in San Francisco with a good landlord story—[our landlord] happily offered us this new location after he decided to develop [the old location on] Mariposa Street.
7x7: How are you different from your big box counterparts?
JG: We are a heaven for fixers and makers. The thing that sets us apart from places like Lowe's is our customer service and depth of inventory. Since we don't belong to a chain, that gives us a tremendous amount of flexibility. We are a resourceful group of people who have been here for a long time. When the city ran out of sandbags during last year's storm, Chris [Wallace, Center Hardware's long-time buyer] got in a truck and drove down to Santa Cruz to get more. We have the independence to dispatch people to do that. During the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, my dad slept on the front counter so we could stay open 24 hours a day for four days straight while the city tried to sort out and contain the damage. Everyone needed everything, from padlocks, chain, gas cans, wood, batteries, and Shop-Vacs. It was intense.
7x7: You've said Center Hardware wouldn't be the way it is today without your dad. Tell us how you work together.
JG: My dad just turned 70. He has skills and qualities that are irreplaceable. He used to read parts catalogs for fun, and he just absorbed it all. He's amazing with that type of stuff. He leaves the daily operations and logistics with me; sometimes that includes mountains of paperwork. It leaves him time to do what he's best at, which is sourcing stuff. He's so jazzed when he sees this broken thing from 30 years ago that isn't made anymore, and he finds the work-around. It's a gift he has and our customers benefit.
7x7: How has the business evolved?
JG: My dad came from the neighborhood store. At the time, [Ocean View Hardware] was primarily a shipyard business, and we now have very little shipyard business. Now we work with the city, facility engineers, hotels, contractors, schools, and SFO. We have a big, robust customer base. And that's what makes us a great equalizer. We have the homeowner, the art student, the burner, the facility engineer, Anchor Brewing, Recchiuti Confections, and The Fairmont. And everybody is treated the same. They all have a problem, and they come here to solve it.
7x7: Has it been a challenge for you to navigate such a male-dominated industry?
JG: It's hard for me to answer that. I grew up in this industry. I started when I was 11, and I've been here full-time since '98. It can be hard to navigate at times...it comes down to people and to respect. Are you going to treat someone credibly as a person? It shouldn't have anything to do with my gender. The customer who growls at me should also be growling at him. But, you can't change everybody. There's definitely sexism that exists, but I also get that at the mall. I don't isolate it to a work thing.
7x7: What would you say to customers who aren't very handy?
JG: Be confident! Holding a drill is intimidating. And you don't know anyone who has a drill anymore, so you can't ask someone to show you how. The thing is, you can.
7x7: Does your team ever get stumped by customer questions?
JG: When we're not quite sure how to answer a question, we totally admit that and kick into research mode. Sometimes, we'll even call our customer who's over there (Jamie points into the store) and get them to answer the question, and now two people have learned. We try to facilitate that kind of thing all day long because that empowers everyone. The customer is happy because he got the information he needed. And my staff learned something. It's a win-win for our store to be this resource.
7x7: Any recommendations for DIY beginners?
JG: We're lucky in San Francisco. There are places like Workshop SF, Wood Thumb, San Francisco Community Wood Shop, Noisebridge, and TechShop that do DIY classes all the time. City College has courses in furniture making, construction, upholstery, among other things. [There's] Revere Academy for jewelry making. The Crucible and NIMBY are in Oakland. SF Etsy is a great group. I want people to know that they can learn hands on.There is also a goldmine of credible information online from tool companies and how-to places like Instructables and Ana White. We wouldn't be Center Hardware if we didn't encourage people to want to learn trades again. Our plumbers, electricians, carpenters, engineers, and mechanics are all in short number in San Francisco. There are amazing apprenticeship programs through our local unions.
// Center Hardware, 3003 Third St. (Dogpatch), centerhardware.com