Story by KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
Photos by BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat
When the latch on Carol Porter’s sliding glass door came loose and fell inside the frame, she knew just what to do.
She went to Rex.
Rex — formally known as Tomasini’s Rex Ace Hardware and Country Store — has been proving to locals it is “the king of hardware stores” since 1907.
What happened is typical of what Porter has experienced through the years, she said. The Rex employee she talked with diagnosed her problem, said she didn’t need a $26 replacement kit, loaned her his keychain magnet and gave her directions.
She took the magnet home, tied a string around it and lowered it inside the door frame. The magnet attracted the latch, she pulled it up and reattached it, then returned the magnet.
“He could have sold me the kit,” she said, “and made money.”
But that’s not the way Rex operates.
“I’ve always tried to be a little different,” said Jeff Tomasini, who has owned the store for 29 years. “We revolve around the homeowner. It’s good, old-fashioned service. We’ll take a lamp into the back and fix it. If we’re not swamped, we’ll do anything for you.”
Tomasini said his goal is to “to have it all, so people don’t have to run all over town.”
He learned what running all over town is like when the store burned in 2006. “Then I was the guy running around town,” he said, adding dryly, “It hampers the day a bit.
“We may not sell a hundred (of certain items) a week, but we don’t care. A lot of places don’t carry the things that don’t move.”
For example, Rex carries fans in the winter, heaters in the summer and canning supplies all year long.
If you, as a customer, want something and it’s not stocked at Rex, “we’ll write it on a pad,” Tomasini said. “At the end of the week, we’ll talk about it. We build our inventory one item at a time.”
When Tomasini says “we,” he means it. He considers his 13 employees to be family. “I’ve had resentment toward management,” he said of previous jobs. “That’s not here.”
At Rex they celebrate birthdays, have barbecues and Christmas parties. And, he said, “I don’t expect them to do anything I don’t do.” He gets there at 5:30 a.m. to sweep, re-stock, take out the trash and clean the bathrooms, whatever needs to be done.
Employees have been there, on average, 10 years, he estimated. “I prefer seasoned employees who know what they’re talking about. Most of my guys have had their career. They’re semi-retired and know their stuff.”
At 53, Tomasini said he’s the youngest member of the staff.
One of the charms is Rex’s big Bridal Registry sign in the window. Tomasini said the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen got a kick out of a hardware store offering that service. But half the business is housewares, the “country store” part. Tomasini’s wife Gro is in charge of it.
“We’re two stores in one,” he said, adding with a smile, “She keeps trying to encroach on my space.”
And any customer cruising the housewares side will understand that sign.
Brides can find dishes, cookbooks, food processors, coffee and wine supplies, and kitchen goodies from wooden-handled spatulas to a brownie pan “with extra corners,” madeleine pans, chocolate molds, cookie cutters and candles. There are locally made items as well: Tomasini believes in supporting the community that supports him. And both he and Gro try hard to buy as many American-made products as they can.
When the store burned, Tomasini said he was astonished and touched by how much the community cared and how badly they missed the store.
“I knew they got what we’re trying to do here,” he said. One of the many signs tied to the fence that surrounded the charred ruins read, “Hurry up, Jeff. I need a new toilet plunger.”
Tomasini was determined that the new store be as much like its creaky, old-fashioned predecessor as possible.
“Although the feel isn’t quite the same, it’s close,” he said. He went so far as to use fewer nails when laying the hardwood floor so it would creak as the old one had. But then “we oiled the floor, and it stopped the squeaking,” he said with a laugh.
“I hide my computers. We price everything with a tag, and when we ring you up, we do it by hand. We don’t scan it. Everyone gets greeted at the door,” and if there’s a complaint, “I’ll call you at home.”
Employees are encouraged to be personable, he said, to joke tastefully with customers. “Shopping’s supposed to be fun. I like to make it a cool experience.”
He tilts back in the chair in his upstairs office. “Sometimes I sit up here and it sounds like a party down there.”
Tomasini’s Rex Ace Hardware and Country Store is located at 313 B St. and open daily from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., although Tomasini said, “If someone knocks on the door before hours, we’ll let them in, or if I’m walking to my car after work and someone has an emergency, I’ll go back.”