These days, especially as San Francisco city dwellers, we can get almost anything from the touch of an app or the click of a mouse, and as e-commerce has grown, local businesses have felt the pinch.
But for one longstanding business, things are still going strong. Roberts Hardware, located at 1629 Haight St., has been around for 84 years and is among the older storefronts on Haight Street.
Roberts Hardware was opened in 1931 by Robert Smith, a newly arrived German immigrant. Back then, the shop sold both hardware and homeware items. Over the years, it's become more of a “true” hardware.
Steve Smith, Robert’s grandson, has co-owned the store with his brother Bruce for the last 22 years, ever since their own father retired from the business. Steve and Bruce grew up in the Haight on and off, and each went to school and studied other things, but they both came back to the neighborhood and to the shop.
We caught up with Steve on a recent sunny Wednesday to hear how the store is faring in the new online economy.
What’s it like to own a small business, especially now that you can buy anything you want online?
“It’s a bit more challenging now, as far as pricing. Just because of what you said with the Internet, people come and look, and then they price stuff out on the Internet; they try to get the lowest possible price that they can.”
Why should someone come in instead of buying something online?
“Service you can’t do on the Internet. A lot of our business is service-related. Products and knowledge and making things and showing people how to make things or do things, which the Internet really can’t do. We also have a lot of products like paint and paint-related stuff that you can’t really ship, and you can’t color-paint on the Internet. And you wouldn’t be able to get a little extra bit if you ran out [of paint] if you bought it online. So the service-related stuff works pretty well for us.”
Have you seen much of a change even in the last couple of years?
“No, we’re pretty steady. We have local people that we deal with all the time. We have a number of apartment managers and property owners and service people that are used to coming in and know what we have and what we do. So we have a steady clientele that we’ve established over the years.”
What's it like having Cole Hardware just a few blocks away?
“You know, they’re a good store. I think if you have good stores around you it makes everyone better, because everybody has to compete and watch out for what other people are doing. We kind of do similar things but a little bit of different things. I think it’s good for both of us.”
Do you have a typical client?
“Our clientele is very diverse. Everything from renters to large building owners and large property management companies. Most of it is referral-based or developed over the years. We do a little bit of city business with Golden Gate Park.”
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen?
“You know, it’s always been a young neighborhood. And it changes a lot, daily, yearly, monthly. It varies quite a bit.”
Any particular times of year that you look forward to? What times of year are the busiest?
“Busiest times of year are around Christmas time. Christmas was when we started taking a hit with the Internet because people shop for different things at around then ... it used to be primarily tools and things like that, and that has shifted with the Internet, so Christmas isn’t quite as busy as it used to be.
"But now we get a big influx at Burning Man time, with people buying lots of supplies for Burning Man. And Halloween’s always fun. Halloween took a hit when the Castro street party got closed down because not as many people get dressed up. But those are fun times.”
Do you have a favorite part about owning the store?
“The diversity of people.”
What items sell particularly well?
“We sell a lot of plants. And a lot of paint. Everything else depends on the kind of client.”
Steve admitted that he didn’t like talking about himself too much, so on our way out, we asked him about the store's large selection of plants. When we asked for something low-maintenance, Steve pointed at each plant and told me which ones required little effort, as well as what happened to certain blooms, which ones to put in direct sunlight, and more.
His knowledge was extensive, and it was clear that helping customers, in person and offline, was where he felt most at home.