I've been getting anxious phone calls from people all over Berkeley because of rumors that Berkeley Hardware, one of the most beloved stores in the city, is going out of business just a year short of its 120th birthday.
Relax, folks. Berkeley Hardware isn't going anywhere.
Actually, I take that back. It is going somewhere. The landlord has decided to develop the space as a five-story apartment building, so the store will have to move.
"We're looking for another spot in downtown Berkeley, preferably with parking," says Virginia Carpenter, whose family has owned the store since 1945. "We want to continue to serve Berkeley for another 120 years."
I'd better explain why people are taking this so personally. First, it's just a terrific store – one of those old time hardware stores that always have whatever you're looking for, no matter how obscure.
Then there's the longtime manager, Quentin Moore, a man whose sunny disposition makes Santa Claus look like The Grinch. And the other employees take their cue from him. They're all friendly and helpful, and the customers think of themselves as part of an extended family.
But it's also a symbol of a larger issue. For years, Berkeleyans have watched in dismay as the mom & pop stores that made Berkeley so Berkeley disappeared one by one: Edy's, where we ate Sundaes after movies on Saturday nights; Wilkinson's, where we munched waffles on Sunday mornings; the Blue & Gold Market; Bolfing's Elmwood Hardware; Radston's Office Supply; Cody's Books – the casualty list goes on and on.
Berkeley Hardware is one of the last survivors, along with the Darling Flower Shop and Moe's Books. It's now the oldest store in the city.
When it was founded in 1895, Grover Cleveland was president. Cars, planes, radio, TV, movies, computers, smart phones – none of them had been invented yet.
"But our inventory really hasn't changed much," says Virginia. "You still need a hammer, still need a nail, still need a knife to cut your meat with."
The heart and soul of the store, from 1945 to his death in 1997, was Virginia's father, Charles Judy, the most respected man in town.
"There was nothing phony about Charlie," an old-timer told me. "He was the most honest man I ever met. A shake of his hand was better than any contract."
Every day, he brought his dog, Rhoda, a tiny mutt with enormous ears, to work with him. Rhoda would take up her station at the top of the stairs leading up to the electrical department and, with great dignity, survey her realm like the monarch she was.
"When she was here, we knew he was here," says Moore. "Man, he loved that little dog!"
One Christmas Eve, Judy got a frantic phone call from a man who had bought a model train for his child. A part was missing. It was well past midnight, but Judy got out of his bed, met the man at the store, and gave him the part so his child wouldn't be disappointed on Christmas morning.
"That's the kind of guy he was," says Virginia. "We still try to do that today, if we can."
If you hear of a good spot available in downtown Berkeley, send Virginia and her husband Bill an email at firstname.lastname@example.org/