Norris Hardware to Close by September 1
By SUE PASCOE
Grant and Ellen Sears have confirmed what their customers had feared: they will not renew their lease at Norris Hardware when it ends on August 31.
The store’s owners told this reporter that they learned on June 15 that there would be no reprieve in their lease negotiations involving the oldest family-owned and operated-business in Pacific Palisades.
Starting on Monday, July 9, everything in the store will be half off.
“I just feel sorry for the community,” Ellen Sears said in a June 28 interview in the upstairs office at the building located on Sunset.
She and her husband understand the important role this store has played in the community since 1925 by meeting the basic household needs for shoppers from all economic classes. Norris sells everything from light bulbs and kitchen fixtures to gardening and cleaning supplies.
A story broke in a local paper in May that Norris were closing, but “At that point, nothing was settled yet,” Grant said.
In February, while working for the Palisades News, this reporter contacted the landlord, Leland Ford, upon hearing that Norris might close.
Ford belongs to a family trust that owns the land where Norris, Pharmaca, Ralphs and the Palisades Car Wash are located, and he said the 20-year lease was under negotiation.
The proposed rent on the 11,731-sq.-ft. building was going to about triple, to $4.75 a square foot, with only a five-year lease. The new rent would have cost about 20 percent of the store’s profit, before taxes and employee costs.
“An increase wasn’t unreasonable,” Grant said. “We expected it. We’re not angry over it.”
“We don’t put it on a personal note, because it’s business,” he and his wife said, but they were surprised that “people have taken [the closing] personally.”
“It wasn’t really doable,” Ellen said, and Grant added: “The profit margin becomes too thin—and if the economy hits a bump. . ..”
The Sears explained they survived the 2008-2010 economic downtown because “we adjusted and purchased just enough inventory that would sell just ‘this’ week.”
But now, “unless we expanded our business or made an unreasonable increase in prices, we couldn’t make it,” said Grant, who predicted, “The town will never see another hardware store; it’s too expensive.”
The couple said that a startup needs about $1 million to get established, including remodeling the existing space and buying the initial merchandise and insurance.
They explained that independent hardware stores, such as Norris, generally join a co-op with stores such as ACE or Do It Best, in order to gain better buying power.
The Sears found a woman from Illinois whose family owned hardware stores in the Midwest and had taken over two small hardware stores in California and was interested in Norris.
They were impressed with her knowledge of the business and introduced her to Ford. She seemed to think that she might be able to continue operating the store if the rent were $4 a square foot.
According to Grant Sears, the woman and Ford met several times, but in mid-June, Ford let them know it wasn’t going to work.
The Sears also briefly considered subleasing the large frontage space along Sunset, but “to make our rent, we would need the entire space,” Grant said. Currently the upstairs, which at one time also served as a showroom, is now used to store product.
“It’s not conducive to having someone here [splitting the space] because of the location of the electrical and fire boxes,” Grant said about the 70-year-old building.
They also considered trying to provide outside services such as insulation services, but “It wasn’t really doable,” said Ellen, whose father had run the store until his death in 1996.
The couple, who between them have almost 80 years of experience in the business, said that one of the hardest things was “shutting down a 93-year-old business on our watch.”
The Sears have been surprised and heartened about the number of people who contacted Ford and lobbied for them. “Some wrote letters,” Grant said. “Who writes letters anymore?”
Since they both work upstairs, they don’t usually deal day to day with residents and “It gets past you how many people depend on you,” Grant said.
Robert Norris, Ellen’s grandfather, installed the first residential plumbing lines in Pacific Palisades. According to a historical story, his wife Clarissa was the sister of Reverend Charles Scott, the founder of Pacific Palisades. A plumbing shop was opened on the corner of Temescal Canyon Road and Beverly Boulevard (now Sunset).
The couple next opened Norris Hardware in the historic Business Block building (next to today’s Starbucks) in 1925.
In 1956, the store moved to 1032 Swarthmore, replacing Rexall Drugstore. Later, when Norris moved its current location, that space would be occupied by Benton’s and Dante’s (later Maison Giraud).
Ellen remembers that when the Bay Theatre on Sunset closed in 1979, a member of the Ford family sought out her grandfather and offered him the space with a 20-year lease.
In February, the store had 14 employees, but is now down to nine. People are starting to look for other work in anticipation of the store’s closing.
“Those that stay [until we close], we’ll take care of them,” Grant said. “I have connections and I’m going to try and help them get work in the same business.”
He and Ellen said, “We’re responsible for our people.”
The upcoming sale will go through July, depending on how much merchandise is left.
“We’re going to lose money, but it will be good for the customer,” Grant said.
The owners plan to box up anything left unsold, such as plumbing fittings, and send it to Habitat to Humanity. Then it will take at least two weeks to dismantle the fixtures and take them out.
“In a perfect world, we’d be done a week before the end of August,” Grant said. “It’s a big task.”
“It’s not a happy one,” Ellen said.
The couple, who have not had a vacation or time away from the store since Ellen’s father died in 1996, plan to just “decompress” for a month, and then maybe take a trip—driving through the Western states.
“We’ll take back the vacations we haven’t had the past 20 years,” Grant said.