By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS
After Masayasu Ashizawa came from Japan to San Francisco nearly a century ago, he opened a hardware store in 1925 in the heart of bustling Japantown and named it Soko — Japanese for “that place.” Soko Hardware’s founder could not have imagined the family business would be thriving in that place today under the management of his grandson Philip, born years after his grandfather died.
Soko Hardware, at 1698 Post Street, thrives not just as a local hardware store, but also as a destination for Bay Area residents and visitors who come for the paper lanterns or the authentic teapots or the delicate china — sometimes even for the hardware.
“I think of going to Soko as a special treat, like going to a museum and finding things I didn’t know existed,” says Mill Valley resident Sue Steele. “I go for so many things, but foremost the flower vases. And the frogs used for arranging flowers — I can’t find them anywhere else. The scissor collection for Ikebana is wonderful, too.”
Nob Hill resident Julia Held goes for the teacups she likes to use and to give as gifts. “But it’s terribly hard to make a choice because they are all so lovely,” she says.
The store stocks basic hardware, from nuts and bolts to fancy tools. “But there’s also a lot of housewares and imports,” says third generation owner Philip Ashizawa. “It’s the mix that works.”
The mix includes appliances, gourmet cookware, paint, plumbing and electrical supplies, toothpick holders, note cards and additional unexpected delights. The store also stocks an impressive collection of Japanese tools for gardening and woodworking, plus seeds for Japanese plants and books about such topics as making shoji screens.
The founder’s son, Masao Ashizawa, then a graduate student in math at UC Berkeley, took over Soko Hardware in 1949 after his father died. Only a few years after returning from internment camp during World War II in Utah, he and his fellow Nisei — second generation Japanese Americans — faced a new upheaval. A portion of San Francisco’s redevelopment plan for the Western Addition, adopted in 1948, demolished Japantown and blocks of Japanese and African American homes and businesses in the area. By the 1960s, much of the area south of Bush Street between Divisadero and Gough had been leveled.
But Ashizawa and others were determined to preserve the Japanese character of their neighborhood. He relocated Soko Hardware from its original home at 1683 Post and worked with the city to get Japan Center and the Peace Plaza built in its place on the south side of Post Street. He became founding president of the Nihonmachi Community Development Corp., which functioned from the 1960s through the 1980s to keep Japantown properties in the hands of Japanese Americans. Ashizawa was among the early organizers of the Cherry Blossom Festival, serving as chairman in its fourth year in 1971.
Fusaye Kato, a Post Street resident, was sent to the same Topaz internment camp in Central Utah during World War II and was one of Ashizawa’s classmates. She recalls his mother with great fondness, and remembers him as a man of ambition. “I think he was president of the student body,” she says.
When Ashizawa died on March 31 at age 90, he was hailed for his commitment to keeping Japantown vital and his love of the community. A memorial service will be held on May 15 at 3 p.m. at the San Francisco Buddhist Church at 1881 Pine Street.
His son Philip Ashizawa came into the business in 1979 after graduating from college, where he majored in biophysics. It was, he says, as good a background as any for running a hardware store.
It’s unclear whether yet another generation of Ashizawas will take over Soko Hardware. “Our son has gone on to other things after college,” says Philip Ashizawa. “Our daughter helps out part time.”
But for now, the care and customer service that are hallmarks of the unique shop are continuing.
An elderly Japanese woman recently came into the store and approached the counter holding four packets of pumpkin squash seeds.
“Which one?” she asks in heavily accented English.
Ashizawa lay the seed packets out on the counter. They’re all similar, he explains, but this one has a slightly different flesh, this one differs in other ways.
“So I should buy this one?”
“Well, no, it’s kind of late in the season,” he says. “You probably want this one, with a shorter growing season.”
The home gardener smiles, reassured, and leaves with her packet of seeds.
Several young women carrying artists’ portfolios glided through the door and down the stairs, presumably to buy new brushes for their calligraphy, or elegant imported papers. Soko Hardware carries an assortment of Japanese papers and brushes. As they were disappearing downstairs, a tall, burly, bearded man wearing a black T-shirt with Vet*er*an in bold letters on the front approached the counter. He seemed to be a regular customer. Phil Ashizawa’s wife Eunice, who helps run the store, had been working with the customer to find what he sought: a cast iron incense holder. “The kids can’t break this one,” he says to those gathering at the counter. “They’re 7 and 9.”
He also had in hand about $150 worth of tools. “I don’t buy everything at once,” he says. “I slip it in a little at a time so the wife doesn’t complain.”
Soko Hardware — which opened in 1925 at 1683 Post Street in the heart of old Japantown — is pictured above from Post and Buchanan circa 1930. In the 1960s, the Redevelopment Agency leveled most of the buildings in the neighborhood and the Japan Center complex and Peace Pagoda were built. Soko Hardware moved across the street to 1698 Post Street, where it continues today.