BAE Interview: Los Altos Hardware
Note: Parts of this interview have been modified for length and clarity.
This discussion highlights a different side of small businesses than what BAE has looked on recently. Instead of stories that show companies in greater isolation, we see here that there remains a sense of structure and guidance in the era of COVID-19:
So, first things first, we always start off our interviews by just asking: how are you, and how is Los Altos Hardware?
I’m good! I can tell you we’re all definitely tired, because we’ve had to constantly adjust to all the rules changing in [Santa Clara County], being an essential business and all. There are maybe 10 essential businesses in Los Altos at the most, and we’ve been open since the very beginning. We’ve had to learn how to do our jobs completely differently — I would say probably by the month — because everything’s changed so dramatically. So we’re constantly adjusting, constantly trying to figure out how to get products, and it’s taken a lot of work.
I see. That’s been the story we’ve heard about quite a lot. Being an essential business — that is to say, being open in that really confusing time, during those two weeks where a lot of other businesses weren’t open — what was that like for y’all?
It was extremely challenging. At that point, there weren’t really that many guidelines coming down for everybody about what to do. You know, they said to us, ‘this is what you can’t do,’ which we understood, but there were no guidelines on what we can do. That was both good and bad for us, because it allowed us to do what was best without having to worry so much about what would happen as long as we made sure we were within the guidelines of what we were working with.
That definitely makes sense, especially because I know that hardware is a little bit of a strange area to be in. It’s not necessarily groceries, but it’s also not like, you know, jewelry. Things still need to be fixed, even during a pandemic, and that’s where stores like yours might come in. With that said, how would you say that your customer base has been affected over the past few months?
Well, a lot of people would think of a hardware store as being, you know, obviously not a jewelry store and not a grocery store. There’s a difference in what we’re doing. We’re not a food store, but we’re literally one step down from that, because what happens if your main line in your house explodes? You need to fix it. And who’s going to come and fix it for you?
That’s a great point, yes.
Yes, so there are different tiers and how that goes, that’s how you have to see it. If something happens in the city or, you know, a valve is blown up, city management needs to go get the products. So a lot of people don’t think about it. They think that stores like these are a place for small projects, when that’s definitely not the case. We’re a complete hardware store. So when things actually need to get fixed, let’s say a power line goes down — we have electricians come in, asking, ‘what do you have?’
Because otherwise, where do you go? So while food obviously is the most useful business out there, our shop is right below that threshold. We’re also one of the only stores with proper stock of COVID products. We have disinfectants, wipes, cleaners. If other businesses are going to be open, they have to get those products. We’re able to supply them.
That’s true — and you’re absolutely right, that’s something that I never really considered before. There are a lot of products, especially during the beginning, that were really hard to come by. And because your store is different — not being a “big box” chain and all, how do you think that the dynamic of competition and industry has changed in the last four months, considering that?
I would say we are definitely doing the best we can. We’ve been supplying businesses since the time when there weren’t a bunch of resources around. We’ve developed a lot of great, you know, partnerships with different vendors — giving out resources where they’re needed. A good example of that was, you know… every business needed to reopen starting a few weeks ago.
And so, you needed things like hand sanitizer — well, good luck finding hand sanitizer when everyone else is buying it. But at our store, we were able to supply that by the gallon. So businesses downtown had an option; they could actually buy enough cleaning product and set up a wash station so people are safer while shopping. Without precautions like that, it doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t open your store. So that’s where we come along and make sure that it’s not just for us, it’s that the rest of downtown actually needs to supply guidance.
I see! And with the ever-changing business landscape in Los Altos, I know that over the past few weeks there have been some developments with nearby businesses concerning Covid: Draeger’s (a grocery store outlet), which recently had to close, as well as State of Mind (downtown pizza restaurant), both due to covid cases. You’re the first business that we’ve actually spoken to since both of those closures. I was wondering what your opinion on those developments have been?
My opinion on that is… well, I would say with Draeger’s, because I actually used to work there before I worked there for 10 years as their manager. So I know of the people that work there. I saw, you know, all the things that they were doing to keep people safe. But unfortunately, when you have hundreds of people going to a store, it is impossible to do that completely flawlessly, no matter what you do. And so, I don’t blame anybody over there for that. They closed because that’s what they’re supposed to do. That’s how it goes.
You know, for us here, we take very similar precautions that you saw. We social distance, we have a hand sanitizer. We’re constantly writing things down. We’re making sure we’re not in the same room or group together as best as we can. We only allow five people in at a time. We can allow more, and we choose not to.
Yes, so I saw walking in! I’ve seen a lot of the things that some businesses have done to mitigate covid, along a wide range of methods. Everyone’s a little bit different. I think we’ve come to find that when we’re interviewing different people, they had different precautions. But overall, because you see changes like this, you see changes in how businesses are relating to one another. And so, over the last four months as a business owner and in the context of downtown Los Altos, how do you think the landscape has changed? That is to say, the interaction between businesses?
I mean, I think it’s sad because we are so far away. It’s hard for me to comment on the other businesses because, again, we kind of do our own thing. But we do know some of the businesses downtown, which we have personally helped prepare for, really opening at some point in time, whether that be given them the same guidelines that we get. You know, some of the businesses may not be able to because the orders are telling them that they need to do “this, this, and this.”
You know, it’s like if there was a business that said, “hey, I don’t you know, I just don’t know how I can adapt to these changes.” And, so, you know, it’s okay to let us help you figure that out so that when customers come in and talk to you, they will feel safe and comfortable. And that’s what it comes down to, you know — someone sees that things are being followed.
So I think overall, businesses have definitely relied on one other. You might hear a lot more from my co manager, Nina, keeping in contact with State of Mind or Cooks Junction, saying, “hey, y’all need to make sure you do this, this and this.” So overall, we’ve been helping each other out a lot.
I see, yeah — I’ve personally seen some of that tradition in Los Altos for a long time, as you mentioned; I’ve been here a lot in the past, especially with some of my family, with some friends. And we’ve seen things like business owners, cafe owners, grabbing equipment for coffee filtration apparatuses. And it’s really cool that you’ve established such a connection with Los Altos businesses there. I was sort of interested in that history, and was wondering — how long have you all been here in Los Altos? What’s that story been like?
So, our store opened back in 1983. And from then on, obviously, it’s completely changed from the beginning; it started as like, you know, with only half of the building being a hardware store. Over time our boss opened up the other side to the same business as well.
And even now, we’re constantly changing. There are different rules that can affect different construction codes. So certain things will work, some things won’t work. But we try our best to maintain and help everyone that shops in our store.
And you know, there are ways that we have changed over the years. For example, we once had really high-end stuff in stock that we got rid of: decorators, showrooms, what have you. We’ve gotten rid of all that, but we still supply the parts for it that can break so customers can still in and, you know, get the same model of something. That’s sort of the agreement between us and our customers.
All right. My final question is more open-ended, but I was wondering if there’s anything else that you would like to say to the Los Altos community as a whole?
I’d like to thank everyone that’s supported us, even when we closed our storefront and had lines extending down the sidewalk. I know that it was very difficult to do our jobs in the way that we normally do, and how we would normally interact. Still, I do know that people were actively making sure to support us so that we could stay open. And that has been something that we’re never going to get and will always appreciate.
Awesome! Thank you so much for talking a bit with me; this was great.
No problem. Thanks as well.
441 1st St. Los Altos, CA 94022–3630
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