Small Business Awards 2008: Big Box Alternative Award

Cole Hardware
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Rick Karp's parents bought the first Cole Hardware at the corner of Cole and Parnassus streets in 1961. Today the family business is still independent, but it now has four city locations.

"I told my wife I'd give it five years," Karp said with amusement, reflecting on how he's worked in hardware ever since he started helping out after school at age 12 before making it his full-time career in 1975.

After 40-plus years, Cole Hardware has 95 employees and is "green certified" by the San Francisco Department of the Environment. The stores carry earth-friendly products, denoted by a green sticker, so customers can make an informed decision about the products they buy. Each location also uses sustainable, low-energy, and renewable resources in a commitment to taking a green path as a business.

"It's trying to walk what we talk," Karp said.

On top of its environmental practices, Cole Hardware is an example of local industry successfully fighting big-box store invasion. A few years ago, Karp was active in community efforts to prevent Home Depot from opening on Bayshore Blvd., going so far as to put up money for a legal challenge to the project. He noted that this was a particularly prudent issue for him given the nature of his business — but he didn't act solely for himself. "The important thing for me is to keep big-box retail out of San Francisco," he said.

Around 1970, Karp joined ACE, a buying cooperative with approximately 4,500 stores worldwide, as a response to such big-box invasions. Membership allows small business owners to buy at high-volume prices and use the savings to provide benefits and fair wages to employees.

"I would typify them as the savior of mainstream America," Karp said, referring to ACE. "You won't see the demise of the hardware store because of chain stores."

Some thanks need to go to Karp of Cole Hardware for that as well.

COLE HARDWARE

956 Cole, SF

(415) 753-2653

3312 Mission, SF

(415) 647-8700

70 Fourth St, SF

(415) 777-4453

2254 Polk, SF

(415) 674-8913

www.colehardware.com

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