By Ken Williams | Editor
‘Coolest Hardware Store on the Planet’ is in Hillcrest
Hillcrest Ace Hardware really is a unique place. While “unique” is one of those often misused and overused adjectives, franchise owner Bruce Reeves can make a good case that his store is one of a kind.
For the past 20 years, Hillcrest Ace Hardware has been serving customers from the Uptown and Mid-City communities with a distinctive blend of goods ranging from traditional hardware products to niche merchandise targeting the LGBT community.
About a month ago, Hillcrest Ace Hardware completed its move into a newly remodeled space next door to its original site. The new store at 1003 University Ave. is in a prime location on the corner of 10th Avenue, and can be easily accessed via state Route 163. It is also across the street from The Hub shopping center, a busy destination with two grocery stores as well as a number of restaurants and small businesses.
“We’re one of the unique Ace Hardware stores because we have three floors,” Reeves said.
In addition, the store is unique on two other fronts. One, Reeves said his store is distinguished as being the first gay-owned franchise in Ace’s history. Two, the Hardware Stores of America (HSA) recently named his business the “Coolest Hardware Store on the Planet.”
With pride, Reeves shows off his “trophy wall” in the hallway outside his office located on the mezzanine level, where he displays seven local Nicky Awards and his newest prize from HSA.
Reeves is happy the move is over.
“It took us six months to move, but we never closed for one day,” Reeves said.
“I’ve been wanting this space for 20 years!”
The corner location was vacant for more than two years after Natvia Furniture closed in 2013. The distinctive building with its Mediterranean façade and Spanish tile roof formerly housed Metropolis, and a carpet company before that.
The new space is much larger than the old location. “Fifteen thousand square feet is considered a large store,” Reeves said, noting that the old location was 10,000 square feet.
Reeves gives credit to Zane Feldman, of the Feldman Family Trust, for working closely with him to make upgrades to the building that has been at that intersection for more than a century. Original wood floors and chandeliers on the main floor were restored. Electrical wiring and plumbing were modernized. New lighting fixtures, coupled with natural lighting from huge windows along University and 10th avenues, make the main floor and the mezzanine look bright and airy.
“We were true to the original design,” Reeves said of the remodeling job.
He also thanks Joe Jeter, his former co-founder, who he bought out 15 years ago, for coming back to help with the remodeling project.
Customers entering the new store are greeted by an employee, who can immediately direct them to the products they may be shopping for. The main floor is spacious and open for two stories, featuring a mezzanine forming a U-shape that can be accessed via two grand staircases at the back of the store.
The expansive basement, however, remains a work in progress. Reeves said that project would take a couple of months to finish before lighter colors are painted and brighter lighting fixtures are installed. The basement — which encompasses all the area below the new store as well as the old one — is where customers can find the nuts and bolts, bathroom and kitchen supplies, and the more traditional hardware items.
Reeves said Ace allows its franchises to cater to their local markets. That flexibility allows Reeves and his staff to reach out to the LGBT community by offering products for that niche market. Although he doesn’t have specific demographic information about his customers, Reeves estimated that 30 percent to 50 percent of his customers would identify as LGBT.
“Ace allows us to design our stores as we see fit,” he added. “They encourage us to have our unique niches.”
For Ace Hillcrest, those niches include same-sex greeting cards and stationery, gourmet cookware, health and beauty products, home décor, LGBT-specific items, and even “gay pride” socks.
In recent years, the closure of Hillcrest boutique stores such as Babette Schwartz, Cathedral, Column One, Obelisk and Establish has left holes to fill for shoppers, and Reeves said Ace Hillcrest has added products in an attempt to fill those needs.
“We have expanded our line of gifts and quirky things and home decor,” he said.
Moving into the larger space also meant the need to expand the staff.
Brooks Edwards, the assistant manager, said they added five or six new employees. He said with the Christmas merchandise going up in two weeks, the store would be hiring again and encouraged anyone “who is good at retail” to apply for a job.
Reeves noted that this was the third time he has expanded the store’s space in 20 years. He has watched Hillcrest grow over the past two decades, and has reshaped his store to reflect those changes.
Edwards, who has been with Ace Hillcrest for five years, said the biggest change during his watch has been the growth of the “B2B” (Business to Business) program.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve been working more with local businesses like Whole Foods, Rich’s and Flicks,” Edwards said. The nearby businesses work with Hillcrest Ace Hardware to purchase cleaning and maintenance supplies or building materials needed for in-house construction projects, he added.
Ahead of the annual San Diego Pride festivities in July, Rich’s and Flicks and other local organizations call on Ace Hillcrest to round up supplies to build floats and decorate them.
Reeves promises customers that Hillcrest Ace Hardware will always be there for them.
To emphasize that point, Reeves said he has signed a long-term lease with the building’s owner, the Feldman Family Trust. “We hope,” he said, “to be here in Hillcrest another 20 years!”
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.