Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Look at a map of Southeast San Diego and you’ll see a triangle of freeways with Hwy 94 along the bottom, I-805 and I-15 its slanting sides. That triangle is home to the Gateway neighborhood, which I only know about because it’s the first place I lived in San Diego. There’s another place down there that you’ve never heard of: Ortwine Hardware store. It’s on Federal Boulevard, just east of the triangle, about a quarter mile from the SDPD firing range.
It’s too bad you’ve never heard of Ortwine Hardware because their customer service is unsurpassed. Walk in and you’re approached by a staffer who asks you what you need. It’s a place where Harold, one of the owners, will dissemble a faulty sink you brought in to learn which washer you need to replace.
Harold married into the business and his wife is co-owner Barbara Pake, who’s dad started the store in 1946. I first visited Ortwine Hardware in 1998. I’d just moved to San Diego and I bought a Phillips-head screwdriver so I could remove the Minnesota plates from my car and install the new plates I’d gotten at the DMV. Two cops, who were eating at a Mexican restaurant, approached me in the parking lot. They asked why I was switching plates on the car and told me to show them my vehicle registration.
Walking through the narrow aisles of Ortwine Hardware is a journey of discovery because there’s no clear order to the merchandise. You see stacks of small buckets next to cabinet hardware next to faucet handles hanging from wall pegs next to a collection office supplies. The serendipity that results causes you to buy things you didn’t think you needed.
The lack of order in the store doesn’t really matter because it’s all in Barb Pake’s head. Ask her where you can find the box-cutter blades… tell her the water is leaving a green stain in your toilet bowl and you need something that’ll clean it… whatever you need she’ll tell you what aisle it’s in and what shelf it’s on. You can be as inarticulate as possible and she’ll still know what you’re talking about.
Barbara Pake and I sat in plastic chairs outside the store as she talked about the history of the neighborhood and the store. The restaurant next door has changed hands several times, occasionally owned by people who got on the wrong side of the IRS. There’s a liquor store across the street, but at least that keeps the drunks on the other side of Federal Boulevard. Barbara and Harold still live about two blocks away and they own five houses in the area.
Ortwine Hardware still uses old-fashioned cash registers that aren’t computerized. Make a purchase and you leave the place with a hand-written receipt that describes item, quantity and price. Barbara says her father started getting Alzheimer’s in the 1980s and he therefore refused to computerize sales and inventory. She’s kept it that way because it’s the way he wanted it.
But how’s business? This store is one of a handful of independently-owned hardware stores that have endured competition from the corporate big box. Barbara estimates there are about a dozen independents left in San Diego. She says Home Depot actually sends her business when people come in with an obstinate plumbing problem they can’t figure out. Barbara says she and Harold train lots of people to fix stuff.
“We’ve trained a lot of handymen over the years,” she said. “Then ladies lose their husbands and they need to get trained to.”
There aren’t a lot of places to go shopping in my old neighborhood aside from the Goodwill Store on Home Avenue. One of my neighbors called it “Sacs Home Avenue.” Then again… there’s the City Farmer’s Nursery, also on Home, that’s rich in its selection and jumbled array. And of course there’s Ortwine Hardware. Pay them a visit if you want someone to find what you’re looking for