SF Apartment : April 2017
Cole Means Community
by Emily Landes
Cole Hardware is a mini Bay Area empire, with six locations in San Francisco and one in Oakland. In addition to the brick and mortar businesses, there’s also a commercial side that deals in bulk orders from property managers, owners and city agencies. They have more than 120 employees, who have worked for the company for an average of eight and a half years, with more than a handful of 20-year veterans. Amazingly, none of it would be here today if Cole Hardware founder Dave Karp had just been allowed to take over his father-in-law’s electric supply and radio repair shop more than 50 years ago.
Dave had worked for his father-in-law for several years, but when the time came for the older man to retire, he refused to turn over the reins. “My grandfather was not the warmest creature in the world,” explained Rick Karp, Dave’s son and the current president of Cole Hardware. “My father would’ve been happy taking over that business, but since he wasn’t able to, he started looking.”
Opportunity came calling in 1959 when one of Dave’s vendors told him about a little hardware store in Cole Valley. Even though Dave was born and raised in San Francisco, he had never even heard of Cole Street, according to his son. But he went to check it out and liked what he saw. He made a deal to buy the shop from the owners, who had been running the place since the 1920s and were ready to retire, and Cole Hardware became his.
Almost immediately, the store became the centerpiece in the Karp family’s life. Not only did Dave go to work every day, but his wife, Margie, often helped out and even 13-year-old Rick was recruited to be the store’s “official Floor Sweeper.” Rick cannot recall his parents ever taking a vacation for at least the first five years they owned the store, which is part of the reason he was determined to do something different with his life. “He was a slave to the store and I felt like if I ever came into the business, that it had to be more egalitarian—where I worked for the business and the business worked for me,” he says.
Dave told his son that he planned to retire at 62 and that he needed to decide by then if he wanted to come into the business. But when Dave was 60, the landlord of the space next to Cole Hardware called Dave to let him know that the larger space was available. Would he be interested in taking over the lease? That close to retirement, Dave declined. But he did have some advice for the landlord: call Rick.
When the call came, Rick was recently married and pursuing his master’s in teaching from San Francisco State. He’d thought he had two more years to decide if he was going to make Cole Hardware his future. “And I was planning on using all that time,” he recalls. Instead, the landlord gave him one week.
Rick says he had a few “sleepless nights” of indecision, but eventually he decided to drop out of school and go full-time into hardware. At the time, he thought the move might be temporary. “I told my wife I would give it five years,” he laughs. “That was in 1978.”
In 1984, the landlord made another fateful call. He let Rick know that he was planning to develop the property and that during construction the store would need to be closed—likely for months. That development never actually got off the ground, but it led Rick to open Cole Hardware’s second location on Mission Street.
The new location helped Rick realize that the neighborhood would help determine a lot of the store’s personality and stock. Mission customers were more likely to take on large DIY projects on their own, for example, whereas those in Cole Valley were more likely to use a contractor for big jobs. Then there was also the language barrier; Rick struggled for years to get Spanish-speaking employees in the store. “It took a few years, but eventually people came to trust us and then they wanted to work there,” he says. “We became a part of the neighborhood.”
Over the years, Rick has been approached by many San Franciscans who wanted Cole Hardware to become a part of their neighborhoods, too. After the Mission branch, they took over Fox Hardware downtown, which Rick says does booming business not only with surrounding hotels and office buildings, but also with European tourists on the hunt for tools to bring back home. “Ironically, Swiss Army knives are less expensive here than they are in Switzerland,” he reveals.
The downtown location also acts as the biggest display case for Noelle Nicks, who oversees all of Cole Hardware’s amazing window displays, where she turns common hardware store items into 80 “art installations” a year, according to Rick. Noelle started by stocking shelves at Cole Hardware almost 20 years ago, but when she told Rick she thought she could do a better job than the outside window dresser the company had hired, Rick told her to go for it. He hasn’t regretted it. “The thing that makes me most pleased about our business is the people who succeed within Cole Hardware and have nothing to do with me,” Rick says. “Our brand really starts with me, but it’s our staff that makes it that way.”
After the success downtown, Polk Street was the next neighborhood to come calling. “That neighborhood and community did a full-court press on us,” says Rick, who opened a branch there in 2003. Pushing equally hard were Rockridge boosters, who tried for years to entice Rick to come across the bay. Two years ago, Cole Hardware opened a store there as well. Rick says they sell a lot more gardening supplies, barbecues and lawn mowers there, but otherwise the clientele is pretty similar to the original Cole Valley location.
And just recently, Cole Valley Hardware opened locations in Soma and North Beach; Rick says he has been looking for the right location in the latter neighborhood for 20 years. He finally found one at Vallejo and Columbus streets, where a defunct Italian market left behind elaborate décor like fountains and Roman columns. “It was like Vegas,” he says, adding that they did end up keeping a few of the Mediterranean touches.
The Loss of an Icon
Even amid the expansion, however, there has also been loss. In October 2015, Dave Karp passed away at the age of 99. Rick says that even though his father was only involved peripherally after his retirement, he still visited the stores regularly all the way up until the end. Today Dave’s slogan, “There are no strangers, just friends we haven’t met,” hangs over the entrance to the Cole Valley store and a large picture of him is located just inside the entrance.
Calling his father an “icon of the business,” Rick believes his dad was very pleased with the legacy of Cole Hardware. “My dad had a good business, but it was just in this one- or two-block area,” Rick says. By the time he passed away, both Dave and the company he founded were recognized around the city and Rick believes his father was very proud of that reputation.
In June 2016, another tragedy struck. After 32 years serving the Mission and Bernal Heights neighborhoods, the Mission Street store was burned to the ground in a five-alarm blaze last June. The fire, which was likely caused by a discarded cigarette or barbecue charcoals, according to an SFFD investigation, caused $14 million worth of damage to six buildings.
Talking about the fire today, Rick says the destruction was not just a loss for the company but also for the community. “If a hardware store closes, the neighborhood feels it,” he laments. He says he is in talks with the new developer of the space and would love to go back to the location one day—but that it will likely take years.
Buy Local; Your Property Values Will Thank You
The closing of the Mission branch underlines something Rick believes in passionately: supporting local stores helps the entire community. Part of the reason Cole Hardware joined SFAA was to be able to reach out to owners about how buying local helps their own bottom line. The people who want to live in San Francisco apartments want unique local stores and businesses. The more “only in San Francisco” shops, the higher the property values, he argues. “Apartment house owners should understand that the more they feed the neighborhood-serving businesses, the more the neighborhood will feed their property values,” he says.
Locally based companies are also more likely to support their communities, Karp says. Cole Hardware offers a community partnership program where supporters of 700 local schools and nonprofits can simply name them when buying at one of the stores and 10 percent of the purchase is given back to the organization as a Cole Hardware credit. They also donate Cole Hardware wine (currently a cabernet and chardonnay from a vineyard in Lodi) to nonprofit events, as well as gift cards for auctions and other fundraisers.
Owners can also expect better customer service from Cole Hardware than they would from a big-box store. Veronica Rodriguez, like many long-time employees at Cole Hardware, started as a cashier and then worked her way up to the manager of the Mission location. A few years ago, she was promoted again and now heads up the commercial side of the business. (Her official title is “Supplies Division Manager/Woman of Action.”)
She says her group specializes in acquiring the hard-to-find electrical and plumbing items that San Francisco owners often need to service their 100-year-old buildings. There is no minimum order required to work with her and every customer is treated as an individual. “It’s customized for each customer,” she says.
Karp believes this highly personalized level of customer service is one way to add extra value over a national supply store—be it brick-and-mortar or online. Frankly, Karp is much more concerned about the latter. “Today the biggest competitor for all brick-and-mortar retail stores is Amazon,” he says. “You could be a customer of Cole Hardware and you’ll always be a customer of Cole Hardware, but we lose transactions to online convenience.”
He knows it’s fighting an uphill battle to bring people back from their habits of convenience. But he asks owners to consider the transformative results of moving just some of their purchases to local purveyors. “We know you’re going to shop online. I shop online. But we try to see if we can shift people’s habits just about 10 percent. And what that does for the local economy is tremendous, and keeps your neighborhood stores in place,” he says.
A Third Generation Comes Into Its Own
Even as he now approaches retirement himself, Rick has a vested interest in making sure that Cole Hardware continues to thrive into the future. Not only is it important for the city he grew up in, but also for his own family. That’s right: there is now a third generation of Karps getting ready to take on the business.
A few years ago, when Rick turned 60, he had a conversation with his son, David, and his daughter, Adrianna, that was very similar to one he had with his own father several decades ago. Telling them he had reached his “decade of decision,” he said they didn’t have to come into the business but they did have to let him know so he could begin creating a succession plan. After talking among themselves, David and Adrianna, who were both living outside of California at the time, decided to move back and learn the ropes. “Right now they are learning ownership, the positives and the negatives,” Rick says.
According to Rick, one of the positives of ownership is that you don’t have to decide to retire right away, but instead back away at your own pace.
While he would love for his children to eventually take over the day-to-day tasks of running the company, he can’t imagine a time when he would be out of Cole Hardware completely. “It’s kind of like my dad,” he says. “I don’t need to retire as long as I can just hang my hat any time I want. I just want to do what I enjoy and what I really enjoy is helping people be successful in the business.”
Emily Landes is a freelance writer and the former editor of SF Apartment Magazine.