Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Good, Better, Best: Meet Jamie Gentner of Center Hardware

Jamie Gentner of Center Hardware in the Dogpatch Neighborhood in San Francisco. Jamie is a fourth generation hardware entrepreneur. 
When I was a kid growing up in Indiana the sight of my dad with his feet sticking out from under the kitchen sink or from beneath our car struck fear in my heart. Fear because I dreaded being asked to ride my bike to the local hardware store to pick up a critical part or a missing wrench that was needed to finish the job.  Our local hardware was a lot of things but it wasn't helpful to a kid with scabbed knees with dollars wadded up in their pockets wandering the aisles looking lost.  And I almost ALWAYS bought the wrong thing which incurred the wrath of Dad and yet another bike ride to the hardware store.

Despite this hardware PTSD, I retain a certain fondness for hardware stores.  The idea that if I looked hard enough I would find whatever I needed for whatever needed fixed in my life was fixed firm in my DNA.

I seriously doubt though that my small town hardware store could envision the mix of customers that frequent Center Hardware. The clerks' head would be on a permanent swivel just taking it all in. Burners, makers, artists and oh yes, contractors, city workers, and more all find what they are looking for at Center Hardware.  That poncho you need for the rainy day protest on Golden Gate Bridge? They have it. The tool you need to turn the bike you are taking to burning man into an art piece? They have it. Need an American flag for a photo shoot like I needed last week? They had it.

Every town needs a hardware store, a bank and a grocery store. Dogpatch may not have a bank or a grocery store (fingers crossed on that last one) but when Center Hardware took over the at Third Street and 26th -- we finally had our hardware store.  Of course they were always nearby in Potrero Hill but the walk from Mariposa under the freeway wasn't always the most pleasant of journeys. But they almost didn't reopen at all according to chief operating officer, Jamie Gentner.

Why do you do what you do?

Because a city needs basic services like a hardware store and not only coffee shops.  We keep things running -- Muni, the Department of Public Works -- you name it.  Because I believe we need to show up. At the end of the day we felt that there was no one doing what we do left in San Francisco.

But we have been through a lot.  In 2014 Socket Site announced that our store was closing to make room for condos. Our business is still recovering from the misconception that we were closing for good.  Our landlord hadn't told us yet of this decision so you can imagine how disruptive this was.

The Potrero Hill neighborhood really rallied to keep us at our Mariposa Street location.
But thankfully we actually do have a good relationship with our landlord and they found us our current space which they also own. The electrical company that was in this building moved to a bigger space also owned by our landlords so we all just moved around a bit.

I mean we can't actually be against development since we are in the business of selling tools to help that development!

My grandfather's uncle lived in Ocean View neighborhood of San Francisco and started the Ocean View hardware store there after World War II. After the war it was a boom time so he was really busy.  He asked my grandfather to help out. My grandfather was supposed to teach PE but he never left the hardware business.  My dad, Keith Gentner, started helping out and he never left either.

In 1980 Center Hardware at 4th and Brannan was looking for a partner so my dad merged the two businesses and closed the Ocean View location.  My dad also made the pivot from only selling to the walk in public to also selling to the government and commercial businesses.  In 1986 we move the store to the Mariposa location.

I started helping out in the mid-1980s.  I was eleven and wanted money to buy cassettes from Tower Records. I cleaned, did inventory and sometimes worked the cash register.  I wasn't always so helpful.

I left when I was 15 because I wanted to buy clothes from The Gap and I wanted that 30% discount they gave if you worked there so off I went to work at The Gap. I helped to open the first GapKids/Baby Gap in the nation on Burlingame Avenue. I worked there through high school.

I thought I wanted to be a vet so I went to the University of Reno with plans to go to U.C. Davis later.  But I flunked Physics 101 and that was the end of that idea.  My professor generously let me pass the class but said my brain wasn't a physics brain and to find myself a new passion. Which I then decided was journalism so my final degree was in copy editing.

When I graduated in 1998 I asked my dad if I could work at the shop while I figured out how to get a job in journalism. And just like my grandfather and my dad, I never left.  And by the way, my son is now working here during the summers.

Everyone in our industry is worried that Amazon will get into the hardware space.  But the online market seems to have resisted the home improvement  market.  We are a needs based business which makes it tough to be an online business.  You walk into a shop with a need and there is someone to help you.

We like that we offer good, better, and best options -- every budget is served.

In the future we hope to keep hosting local popups and perhaps a few seasonal neighborhood events like a pumpkin patch and a Christmas tree lot.  We would also love to offer training classes.

Jamie Gentner of Center Hardware in the middle of the nuts and bolts of the hardware business. Jamie was named Businesswoman of the Year in 2017 by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce at the Excellence in Business Awards (Ebbies) 
Why Dogpatch?

Moving to Dogpatch was a no brainer.  We aggressively looked here.  Greg Markoulis of the American Industrial Center offered us a spot in his building and it would have been a blast to be with all the businesses we already know but the space that would fit our business best was already occupied by Dogpatch Bolders.

We wanted to be north of Cesar Chavez because we needed the convenience of moving materials down the Third Street corridor through town so this location right off of Third Street is a major win for us. This building has the same footprint as our old space but it has a better layout so we have about 35% more inventory.

We love this neighborhood and try to source as many services from here as possible -- printing, photography, etc. We are an active member of the new Dogpatch Business Association as well.

Dogpatch is very San Francisco. The entire neighborhood is like that Cheers TV show --  I can't walk more than three blocks without seeing someone I know and stopping to chat. Feels like everyone here is rooting for each other to succeed and has the "how can I help you mentality".

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
I would love to buy a city block and have Center Hardware on the street level with a trade school above.  But I guess that is still doing a version of this!

So maybe I would indulge my passion for what I call junking -- finding treasures and restoring them. I love to collect from pre-1945 era.  I live in a Victorian that I bought from the family that built it.  I love the history of that and finding items to fill it.

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