I admit it. Sometimes I shop at big box stores. I put myself on hunter-gatherer autopilot and drone around hoping to find that one perfect thing I didn't know I needed. The pleasure of scoring that home-maker win is often overshadowed by unease. Maybe it's the scale of these places, the monstrous quantity of things, the anonymity, or the high science of manipulation that governs their design, but I get the feeling of being swallowed by the maw of my own insignificance. You know, rendered a little less human; consumed.
In contrast, the hardware store at the end of my street is like a little church. I go in for a putty knife and the offerings of friendly banter and hands-on assistance, combined with the feel of the place, renew my spirit. I am fed by a giving and receiving that extends way beyond the financial transaction. To help counter the alienation we've accepted in our lives, I propose going into local businesses with the receptivity and curiosity we employ in cultural spaces, like a gallery or theatre. Step in with loose eyes; take in the light and the shapes; seek connections; ask questions; Soak up stories. Like the archaic definition of customer as "a collector of customs" suggests, participate in a cultural exchange. Art institutions across the country pay big bucks to consultants to teach them something that your local business has already developed into an art form- engagement.
I experimented with this approach by visiting three unique mom-and-pop shops in Ventura County: Avenue Hardware in Ventura, McMullen's Japanese Art & Antiques and Gordon's Western Wear, both in downtown Oxnard. In all three, the items being sold have stories to tell, the people selling them have expertise and friendship to offer, and the design of their stores reveals how they value us, their customers.
Avenue Hardware was established on Ventura Avenue in 1927 to service the oil fields and the housing explosion occurring because of them. Owned by the Dewire family since 1944, it is known for its above-and-beyond service and their prodigious inventory, offering every conceivable nugget of hardware in any size, as well as canning jars, work galoshes, cast iron cookware, tools- you name it. As Tad Dewire says, "if we don't have it, you don't need it." The layout of the store reflects this commitment to stocking eminently useful and diverse items for the customer. It has the feel of Olivander's Wand Shop in Harry Potter- a thorough but comfortable density of goods, organized by hand and memorized by heart. What strikes me is how mysterious the uses of all these items are. Like the hand of the artist being left behind on an artwork, these pipe fixtures and springs and bushings anticipate the hands of the people who know how to use them. They echo the skills of their masters.
Buzz and Tad, as well as long-time employees, Tim (30 years) and Sammy (15 years), are quick to empower us non-masters. As Buzz says, "for the young kids coming up, and the older ones too, we try to show them how we learned." During our move to Ventura, a well-meaning member of the army of friends helping us accidentally snapped off a piece of a mid-century desk that is arguably the nicest thing we own. The next day, I trudged on down to Avenue Hardware with the broken spool in hand and no idea how to make it all better. Tad cut down a dowel, tested various stains to match the color, and sent me home with precise instructions on how to stain and glue it all together. Cost: $11.59. The experience was extraordinary. I was helped and I was taught. The men of Avenue Hardware don't commodify their long-earned and indispensable knowledge. Instead, they pass it on.
At heart of John McMullen's enterprise is a similar belief system. McMullen's Japanese Art & Antiques collection spans five centuries but he only sells to customers who understand that they can never really own these rare, one of a kind pieces. "They will be the temporary custodians of them," he asserts, "and it is their responsibility to be good stewards and to protect them for all generations." He has even denied a sale or two to keep this tenet.
Located on A Street in downtown Oxnard, McMullen's store is a surprise. When you walk in, you see beautiful objects and furnishings. But when you start talking to John, you quickly realize that you are surrounded by the physical manifestation of a life-long passion. Sent to Japan in 1947 to serve in the occupation army, he made his first purchase by trading ten cartons of cigarette rations for a sterling silver vase which he still owns.
After being discharged, he and his wife Bobbi stayed in Japan teaching English and "haunting second-hand stores." They returned in 1971 to Los Angeles with quite a collection. A folk art gallery asked to show it, doubled their prices, and sold every piece. McMullen's hobby then became a business, first selling out of their garage, then out of a showroom in Beverly Hills and now, with lower overhead, in Oxnard. Highlights include being Hollywood's go-to source for sets, props and costumes, building authentic meditation rooms for the devout and famous, and John's official designation as a US Customs authority on Japanese art and antiquities.
McMullen's shop has the feel of a temple, where you walk amongst altar-like groupings of furniture and objects. Yet it's not formal. Crowded corners and work surfaces cluttered with undone projects hint at treasures yet to be discovered. There are a multitude of items possessing breathtaking craftsmanship and beauty- some of them words really can't describe. John's favorites are the pieces that posses remarkable design for utilitarian purposes. The three hundred year-old flashlight, the wooden fire extinguisher, futon covers owned by peasants. The McMullens love bringing these objects to life. Kids visiting on field trips get to try on kimonos and geisha wigs, lay on antique headrests, and take their teachers for a spin in the rickshaw.
The real cultural treasure here is John himself; His expertise, his stories, his mastery of the provenance and life of each piece, and his desire to impart a sense of connection to them. A museum strips an object of its context, obscuring its vitality with preciousness- like a cut flower. A shopkeeper like John hands you the object with his admiration for its story and purpose clinging to it like roots and soil. Living, breathing legacy.
Gordon's Western Wear includes history in its offerings as well. In 1947, Mr Gordon saw the need to outfit the workers of the bracero program, who, having left behind their families in Mexico to pick US crops, often came with inadequate work clothes. To help them, he issued each customer a shirt, pants, underclothes, towel and soap, all on credit. He sold the business thirty years ago to his trusted right-hand man, Roberto Luna and three generations of the Luna family continue to service the agricultural workers and urban cowboys that frequent the store.
Located on Oxnard Boulevard, Gordon's nondescript, dark exterior betrays its interior's museum-quality air of beauty and precision. Shirts and dress pants hang evenly spaced under haloes of cowboy hats. Rows of boots and belts shine, the smell of their dyes neutralized by the warm aroma of lit candles. The place exudes a deep respect for the working people who shop there. Displays are punctuated by iconic elements of the American West; original Levi's posters from the 40s and 50s, photos of cowboy legends, a 200 year-old Stetson in mint condition. They've kept the design the same so that the regular customers can easily find and get what they need, but the Lunas also delight in giving tourists an experience of authentic Americana.
Daughter Rose Luna says that it's not the sale that makes the business, it's the customers who stop in to say 'hi' and ask about the family, folks who want to visit the place they came to as a kid with their grandpa to buy boots, or the people who come from all over Southern California to have Roberto's skillful hands refurbish their beloved hats. "It's not like shopping," says Rose, "it's a visit, like family."
This generosity of spirit seems to guide each of these businesses. Friendly conversations at the cash register strengthen the community by creating bonds of belonging. A craftsperson willing to share their expertise reminds us that, while the whole of human knowledge is collectively earned and owned, we access it through each other. We shoppers bring something of value to the exchange as well. Rose shared that "it's the customer that comes in and asks a question, or says 'I really want you to help me' that gives you a chance to give back." We receive the fruits of their labors. For the Lunas, the McMullens and the Avenue Hardware men, the customer completes the circle.
Top Image: Gordon's Belts by Daniel Huber