For decades, Alum Rock Hardware could help with fixing clogged sinks, torn screens, broken windows and botched wiring. But in the end, it couldn't fix itself.
Confronted by the sharpest housing contraction in its history, the 54-year-old East San Jose institution is taking down shelves, discounting merchandise — and by Friday will lock its own doors forever.
"Our formula worked for 50 years. We've been bulletproof," said owner Wayne Rose, who started working at the shop in the 1960s, as a teenager who knew how to thread pipes. "We've gone through a lot of recessions. But there's never been anything like this."
Unable to weather the freeze-up in contractor business, consumer spending and credit markets, Rose will close his hardware store and focus instead on a customized door and window shop in the back of the property.
The closure comes after decades of strong business, when small-time electricians, plumbers and carpenters, responding to demand from consumers spending borrowed money to improve their homes, flooded the store.
But a stubborn housing downturn and a national economic crisis turned off the credit spigot.
Now, some contractors, unable to pay their bills, are even losing their own homes.
Art of arcane
Once upon a time faithful patrons roamed the aisles so fitfully they wore out the linoleum while scouring well-stocked shelves for odd-size bolts, drill bitsand faucet adapters.
It was a place where customers could buy one simple tube of plumbers putty and still be warmly treated by a staff that appreciated tinkering.
A handmade sign advertises fancy mailboxes. Need a custom-cut piece of galvanized pipe? No problem, they were happy to help.
After poking through scores of small tin bins, each containing a different collection of nails, "one lady just wanted two of them. We gave them to her," he laughed.
Home improvement goliaths like Orchard Supply and Home Depot didn't chip away at Alum Hardware's profits — instead, they generated more business, referring customers whose needs were too arcane, unique or time-consuming.
It's a family business — Rose bought the store from his uncle Jerry Rose. Members of the region's thriving Portuguese community, they have been in San Jose for generations.
When the hardware store first opened, East San Jose was a rural place, so the store stocked a lot of orchard and ranching supplies.
"The shop sold fruit buckets, knives, sulfur," he recalled. "There were a lot of dairies and orchards everywhere — apricots, prunes, cherries. A lot of our biggest accounts were with nurserymen. It was just a bunch of white guys."
Then houses blossomed instead of trees, and nearby neighborhoods filled with ranch-style houses with mortgage payments of $79 a month.
"We started to cater to small contractors in the 1960s, because that's when everything changed," he said.
The shop became a place for flat-head screws and caulking guns, hammers and saws. Over time it focused on hardware, plumbing and electrical supplies. Six days a week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., this has been Rose's life — answering questions, leafing through thick catalogs, placing complicated orders. "One lady wanted lights from Italy," he recalled. "It took a year. She didn't care, because we got her what she wanted."
"You do this because you love the work and because you like helping people," he said. "It'll never put you on the Forbes 500 list. I wouldn't recommend it to my kids; they're smart. They've gone to college. Actually, I wouldn't recommend it almost anybody."
Over time, the Alum Rock neighborhood turned tougher and more urban. Someone dumped a body in the alley. Someone else, escaping an assailant armed with a knife, sought refuge, asking to use the phone.
"When the contractors started to go, all the drunks came in," Rose said. "And Friday and Saturday nights are like a freak show, with every kind of hooker."
But nothing prepared the store for the housing collapse.
Once his staff of 12 was a place to go for advice and support. Now, with two or three employees left, Alum Rock Hardware is a place to go to commiserate.
"We hear so many horror stories. Foreclosures, bankruptcies. Maybe someone had a house that was worth $800,000 and is now only $400,000, so the bank says there's no equity," he said. "Loans are hard to get."
"Termite companies, that do inspections and repairs, used to come get small parts. Now there's no work for them because people aren't buying or fixing their houses. Carpet and flooring folks? There's little going on there, either. One guy I know has a backhoe and his business is down 65 percent. People are just trying to get by without spending money."
"People are working almost for free, just to get cash flow, so they can make a payment on something," he said. "Some contractors have already lost their own house, or their second house. And we're right in the middle of it.
"If you don't make the dollars, you can't stay," he said. "This isn't Washington, this isn't Sacramento. It's the real deal."
"People are coming in and asking, What will I do?" Rose said.
"I tell them: 'Make a list of what you need and I'll try to help. I'll send you to Orchard Supply.' "