Chain Alternative: Brownie’s Hardware

Pub date April 25, 2006

1563 Polk Street, SF

(415) 673-8900

It’s a Brownie’s tradition: Every owner of the hardware store has served as president of the Polk Street Merchants Association at one time or another. And the current owner, Steven Cornell, is no exception. Recently his hardware store hosted a press conference and awards ceremony for small businesses, like Brownie’s, that have been in San Francisco since the 1906 earthquake.

An open hardware store comes in handy during a disaster. Cornell remembers when his neighborhood lost electricity for three days during the 1989 quake. Neighbors came to him in need of batteries, flashlights, and candles, and nearly half of them didn’t have any cash. Cornell didn’t keep track of any names; he just kept a tally of goods that went out the door and asked people to come back when they had the money. "They all did," he says with a broad smile beneath his fatherly brown mustache. "After it all, we had one unaccounted hatch mark, and I’ll chalk that up to poor accounting."

Brownie’s seems like any other neighborhood hardware store. It’s small and crowded; shelves tower with housewares, paint, plumbing, and hardware. According to Cornell, what sets it apart is service. As many as eight employees a day sporting Brownie’s name tags work the registers and offer assistance among the narrow aisles. "Most people come in with a project,” he says. “Our job is to help them find what they need and think of the problems they’ll encounter."

That quality of service extends outside the walls of a store that’s been in Cornell’s family since 1950. Located on the corner of Polk and Sacramento — in the heart of what the old-timers still call Polk Gulch, just five blocks from where Cornell went to elementary school — the shop occupies an avenue of small businesses. "I do most of my business with people who live in apartments," says Cornell, who stocks his store for a renter’s needs. Instead of throwing down a couple hundred dollars for a drill, customers can rent one or even bring in whatever needs a hole or a screw.

From selling Muni passes at no profit to working with city legislature to get health insurance companies to cover domestic partners of small-business employees, Cornell has always been an active community member. (Amanda Witherell)