At Halloween, the storefront windows at Fredericksen Hard-ware may be better known than Avila Street trick-or-treating. In one window, you’ll see a witch chainsawing off a sad victim’s head, and another window is a scene from the movie Psycho — a “blood”-spattered shower curtain. Why does Fredericksen choose displays like this? “How do you say ‘no’ to red paint?” joked Sam Black, Fredericksen general manager.
The window displays are dreamed up by Fredericksen owner, Tom Tognetti, whom Black said likes to “err on the side of crazy.” And while some customers find the windows a bit too much, most do not. “If one person says it’s too gruesome, eight say it’s awesome,” said Black. And, Black said, kids are the biggest fans. “Every day I have to go out with glass cleaner and get the nose and fingerprints off the windows.”
The store often has creative window displays, always promoting products stocked inside. But the Halloween windows are an exception — they’re pure entertainment. “The witch is using an electric chainsaw, and while we do carry those, I don’t think we’ve ever sold one,” said Black.
I’m a frequent Fredericksen customer, and I learned from Black that I’ve likely passed a Getty or Danielle Steele in the aisles, as they’re known to be loyal shoppers as well. So I was curious to learn a little more about this kitschy store, and Black was happy to fill me in.
A former cable car operator founded Fredericksen Hardware in 1896. Since then, ownership largely stayed in the family, until Tognetti, who owns two other hardware stores in Alameda, bought it 10 years ago. The Fredericksen family was picky about who bought the store, and felt Tognetti was a perfect fit. “Lowe’s wanted to buy it, but the family wasn’t interested,” said Black. “They only wanted to sell to the current owner. Tom wanted to carry on the legacy; he wanted to carry on the name. And Tom lives and breathes hardware. Ad nauseum.”
MORE THAN SCREWS AND NAILS
If you shop at Fredericksen, you know it’s not just about hardware. They sell everything from “hammers to Epson salts,” in Black’s words. He considers Fredericksen more of a general store. And while you can find countless knick-knacks and gadgets, you’ll also find high-end kitchenwares, like Wusthof knives and All-Clad cookware.
But when Sur La Table moved in around the corner on Union Street, customers started shopping there for high-end products, and Fredericken’s felt the hit. “Sur La Table destroyed us,” said Black. “Our pricing is exactly the same, but we lost business. I don’t think we’ll ever recover.”
So Fredericksen was forced to regroup and recategorize. Black says they shifted their inventory to more storage and cleaning products. Luckily, paint is a steady seller and that keeps business going. “We rely on customers coming in at the end of every month to paint their apartment walls white again before moving out,” said Black.
These final months of the year are the “fat months,” for Fredericksen according to Black. Customers are entertaining and sprucing up their homes, and they come to Fredericksen to find what they need. Black jokingly calls this time of year “toilet seat season,” after a local plumber pointed out that people upgrade their toilet seats before holiday guests arrive. And sure enough, Black said the numbers prove the plumber right.
But possibly the most popular “products” are the resident cats, which Black calls “another Tom-ism,” referring to the owner’s eccentric personality. Tognetti insisted on having a cat live in the store, but it had to be a stray … a rescued cat. There are now two — grey and white Toodles, and Pepper, the black newer addition. Both can often be seen napping in their elevated donut beds adjacent to the checkout counter.
The next time you visit the store for a quick errand, or stop to gaze at the window display, say hello to the employees. Many have been there for a long time. Rocky and Larry have worked at Fredericksen for 30 years. Black himself has been with the store for 16. Along with Toodles and Pepper, they are just as much a fixture in the neighborhood as the store itself.