Fredericksen’s seeks to rescue Hardware Unlimited

Hardware Unlimited has been at 3326 Sacramento Street for almost a century.

Hardware Unlimited has been at 3326 Sacramento Street for almost a century.

By CHRIS BARNETT

The neighborhood is on the verge of losing another hardware store — the beloved Hardware Unlimited on Sacramento Street — unless the landlord and property manager can come to terms with the owner of Fredericksen Hardware & Paint in Cow Hollow, who says he is trying to honor a deathbed request from his friend to buy the 90-year-old shop.

Barring an 11th hour agreement, the late Dick Norwood’s hardware and housewares emporium at 3326 Sacramento will wind up its liquidation sale and close its doors on January 18.

Tom Tognetti, Norwood’s friend, owns Fredericksen’s at 3029 Fillmore and two other hardware stores in the Bay Area. He claims property manager Victor Makras has refused to return his phone calls for four months, even though Tognetti has agreed to the financial terms of a monthly rental agreement to become the new tenant in the space.

Tognetti said he has agreed to pay for upgrades to the store to meet access requirements mandated by the Americans With Disabilities Act. The retrofitting is estimated to cost around $10,000, and typically the landlord pays for those property upgrades. Tognetti said he is also willing to pay the $10,000 leasing commission Makras is reportedly requesting from Norwood’s widow. The original leasing fee was $20,000, but the landlord, in a show of good faith, reportedly sliced it in half.

The stumbling block appears to be Makras’s demand that Tognetti must be personally responsible for all terms, conditions and liabilities of the new lease — instead of the widely used approach of forming a limited liability corporation to take over the business.

“All my stores are LLCs,” said Tognetti, “but for some reason he wants a personal guarantee, which leaves me wide open to any lawsuit.” He added: “I’ve been trying to strike a deal with Victor (Makras) for months and he will not give me the time of day.”

Asked to give his side of the story, Makras declined to comment. Pressed about the alleged dispute with Tognetti, Makras firmly repeated his response: “No comment.”

Property records show the building has been owned by the M. Afshin Najafi Family Trust since 2008. Alex Najafi did not return numerous calls to the dry cleaning establishment he owns in San Rafael.

Meanwhile, Hardware Unlimited’s customers are grieving both Dick Norwood’s death — on August 22 after a heart attack — and the possible end of the store itself. An in-store petition quickly gathered more than 300 signatures in a quest to rally public support.

“My God, it’s devastating,” said Katherine Coleman, a frequent customer. “When I found out Dick died, I just lost it,” she said, erupting into tears while shopping at Hardware Unlimited. “Dick and everyone here — Robert, Oleg, Nancy, Linda — have always been so good to me. I could tell them what I wanted and they didn’t just sell it to me, they gave me tutorials. I had a house account. They’re like family.”

David Curtis, who was buying picture hooks and cleaning products at the liquidation sale, was also disappointed to see the store’s possible demise. “Stores like this give the neighborhood character and utility,” he said. “They’re what keeps Sacramento Street lively.” Curtis said he still hopes Frederiksen’s owner can buy Hardware Unlimited and continue the tradition of a “basic, old fashioned hardware store that has a helpful staff, but sells cutting edge products as well.”

Another customer, Marie McNulty, who moved into the neighborhood in 1976, said: “This has been my hardware store. I could bring in something, almost anything, and ask them how to do it or use it and they would take the time to explain — whether or not I bought it here. I love this store.”

Belen Norwood, the deceased owner’s wife of 25 years, confirmed her husband loved to help customers. “He was a very kind man with a heart of gold — more like a teacher,” she said. “As much as it took him away from running the business, he would rather explain to the customer exactly how to use what they were buying. Nobody does that kind of hardware store customer service today except Fredericksen’s.”

Actually, Norwood worked at Fredericksen’s at one point and that’s where he met Tognetti, who was a salesman selling light bulbs and electrical products to independent hardware stores in the Bay Area. In 1985 he had the chance to buy the Sacramento Street store that was originally Superior Hardware and Electric. According to Belen Norwood, “Dick borrowed money from his mother and bought the place.”

Hardware Unlimited flourished in the 1980s and ’90s, along with the rest of San Francisco, but beginning in 2008 she said the economic crisis took a toll on the business and her husband. “When he came home, we used to play this game — we called it ‘Guess what we did today’ — and I’d guess $1,500 or $2,000. Even though things were shaky financially, Dick never showed it. My only clue was that he would wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning and pretend to watch TV,” she said. “One day Dick whispered into my ear: ‘If anything happens to me, call Tom Tognetti and offer him the business.’ Tom was a good salesman who would take time to talk with people. And he has a great sense of humor.”

Tognetti admits he didn’t leap at the opportunity to add another link to his chain. “When Dick passed away, I was just going to send flowers, not get involved,” he said. “But when Belen told me what Dick had said, I changed my mind. We put together a deal to purchase the store. That’s when the problems started with Victor. I just don’t get it.”

Ironically, rent on the 2,800-square-foot building is not outrageous by current area commercial standards. Tognetti said he can live with the numbers: $8,175 a month for the next two years and then a 5 percent increase for each of the next five years.

“Dick did a great job. I have the knowledge and know-how and three other stores that could support this one with more product,” he said. “I can make this into a hardware store like no one has ever seen, even more of an asset to this neighborhood.”

But as long as Makras is ducking him, Tognetti is convinced it’s futile. “If I can’t make the deal with what I’m offering,” he said, “I don’t know who can — unless it’s another dress shop.”

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