Home & Garden Columns

About the House: A Very Rude Survey of Local Hardware Resources

By Matt Cantor
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 11:30:00 AM

When I graduated from Cal in 1981, I was summarily struck jobless by the haughty world of architecture and forced to seek refuge among the squalid functionaries of the city who toil by day repairing toilets and caulking leaky siding. These weary souls took me in as one of their own and showed me their simple ways. I learned how to reuse a paper face mask, how to stuff fix-all into the holes left by old deadbolts and the lost art of screw extraction. Fingers smeared with paint and grime, these ascetics showed me the arcane ways of the handyman, still mysterious to all but the indoctrinated. Some are now gone, like the lurid and brilliant Martin Metal and others remain who shall, for reasons of liability, remain shielded by circumspection. 

Part of this dark gnosis was the orally related teaching of hardware—where to obtain and whom to query. This latter point may seen irrelevant, but far from it. A good hardware clerk can do much to advance your cause and a bad one (or an EVIL one) can cause you to scream and writhe in pain as you watch the plumbing continue to drip following your fourth attempt. The right part and the correct procedure spell the difference between sanity…or the abyss—as those who have traversed those winding streets can attest. 

Here I will share with you a small review, if you will, of my favorite hardware haunts. Many will be left out and, for this, I apologize in advance. Some are lost in memory and then there are those who should not be mentioned. I cannot tell you which. 


Hardware stores 

These are places to get screws, nails, light bulbs, tools and minimal supplies for plumbing, electrical wiring and heating systems. Do not expect much in these latter categories. A bit of chain or shelving brackets is what you should expect. And glue—lots and lots of glue. 

Numero Uno: Pastime Hardware, El Cerrito. Pastime is very much in the mold of the ancient hardware store with about 12 million little drawers and bins containing most of what humanity has thus far produced. That toy you lost as a small child? It’s there. 

Special Award: Eastern Supply, on Shattuck near the Berkeley Bowl. By some freakish violation of the laws of physics, Tat and Godfrey manage to get nearly all of the world of plumbing and electrical wiring into this small store. Do not ask how this is done. They are also extremely cool, so you should go there. 

Best Attitude: Ellis Hardware, Oakland on Martin Luther King Jr. Way near Children’s Hospital. Paul and company make you feel less stupid than you actually are as you acquire those simple items that will enable you to sand a board or fix a faucet. It’s another well-stocked little gem. Kensington Hardware has similar physics but is less ebullient. Laurel in Oakland is similar and has good candy. 

Old Faithful: Berkeley Ace is pretty damn good and still features many nifty household items that are hard to find. These include picnic tablecloth by the yard and great Christmas lights. Go get lost in here for an hour or two. Train and hobby nuts already know about this place. 

When you’re in Oakland’s Chinatown: American Emperor. They will yell at you on the phone for no apparent reason. Very, very cheap electrical and plumbing supplies. I do not know how they get them so cheap—better not to ask. They also manage to get a huge amount of stuff into a fairly small store but, in their case, it is less mysterious as you climb over piping a foot thick to get to the galvanized fittings. 


Builder’s supply 

Truitt and White, in Very West Berkeley. The secret order of TW cannot be spoken of or related. They divine your true need and redirect you to what you should actually be buying. These are not simple Jedi mind-tricks. The best of everything at fair prices and about 15 of the best people you will every meet. Everything to build a house. The Home Depot wishes it were TW but this will never be. 

The Lumber Baron. Only redwood but in every imaginable dimension. The best deal on redwood. All my decks and fences came out of this place. 



Moran Supply, 40th Street in Oakland near Telegraph. This is the real deal. Experienced plumbers shop here. Ron Kyle is the person I ask for advice but that’s just me. I rarely buy plumbing stuff at hardware stores. I go to Moran and get the right part. They let regular people in, too. Rubenstein’s is also pretty good. 



Laner Electric, Richmond, one exit past Costco. For anything more than a little wire, I head out to Laner. There is virtually nothing that they do not have. This makes life much less painful than attempting this at Home Depot. Orchard’s isn’t too bad on plumbing and electrical (and they actually put things away in the right bins unlike the dreaded HD) but for sheer thoroughness, Laner can’t be touched. They also know a LOT about what they’re selling (like Moran). Metro Lighting on San Pablo in Berkeley is my first choice for lighting. Gorgeous craftsman-nouveau lamps made right here in our fair city. 


Locks, keys and forced entry 

Rex Key, on University Avenue is nearly 100 years old and has the largest collection of key blanks west of the Mississippi. They can repair mortise locks (those Victorian door locks) and cut skeleton keys for same. There is no lock they cannot repair. I would not leave them alone in a room with a safe. Lots of field techs, but for the best deal, take the lock to the store. They’ll re-key, duplicate or whatever you need. 



There are many places to buy tools including the hardware stores listed above. I buy power tools at TW. For hand tools that may cause you to weep, take a stroll to Hida Tool. Located across from R.E.I. on San Pablo near Gilman, they feature the finest, mostly Japanese made, hand tools. Anyone considering a minimal intervention into the world of carpentry should buy one Ryoba (pull saw) from Hida. Works better than a common handsaw the very first time. If you garden, you will want to buy every pruning or sawing tool they possess. 


Salvaged parts 

Like many towns over a hundred years old, Berkeley has a nice supply of organs donated from the deceased including bricks, tubs, lamps and too many odd wondrous artifacts to detail. Urban Ore is still my favorite. Berkeley Architectural Salvage sadly passed with Alan Goodman a few years past, but let us not linger on sadness and loss. Ohmega Salvage is rarely cheap but has some tasty treats worth the bucks. Ragnar at Berkeley’s Sink Factory also has fanciful and odd fixtures to peruse. More salvage places can be found at the links on Ohmega’s website. 

Though I have probably dished sufficiently on the dreaded HD, I will say a few things about them. They have a lot of my money and it’s only fair to say that they set a very poor example for our children. They are messy and don’t put their things away. Everything is all mixed up and I get so OCD that I find myself reorganizing all the ABS fittings. This takes far too much time so I stay out of that isle now. 

They do not play with others. In fact, when I look for them, I cannot find them at all, any less play with them. When I do find them, they usually lie to me, telling me that such and such is over yon and despite myself, I am fooled again and again. If there is a Death Star on our home-world, it is this place and despite the teachings of my masters, I cannot resist their powerful gravitational and economic forces. If you see me there, please smack me to release me from their powers. 

Now you are one of us. Please use the secret knowledge wisely and, above all, only for good. May the force be with you.