This year will mark the 75th anniversary of my grandparents' hardware store, and I don’t know what its future holds.
Established in 1946 as a hotel supply store by my grandfather, it supplied the local SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotels that were primarily housing Japanese Americans after World War II who returned home to their communities, only to find out that their properties and belongings were seized by other government entities or opportunists. When Japanese Americans began to move out of the SROs and into the suburbs of South Bay, the San Fernando Valley, East San Gabriel Valley, and Orange County, the store transitioned into what we know today as Anzen Hardware.
The store as well as the Little Tokyo community combated several waves of redevelopment that involved the City of Los Angeles seizing land through imminent domain, Japanese and American corporate developers, and the metro, which is now constructing a station that will become the second busiest in all of Los Angeles.
My relationship with this hardware store started in 1991 when my family moved back to Los Angeles from Kyoto, Japan. As a youngster, I recall spending time in front of the store and watching the Nisei Week Parade. It provided a sense of home in a community the family loves so much. We would sell drinks in a tub for maybe 50 cents or a dollar and it was a blast.
The shop moved from its second location (my first location) to its current one. The store’s footprint, for the most part, stayed the same except the bathroom moved from the side of the store to the back, and the front window wasn’t large and wide, but tall and narrow. I remember occasionally cleaning the key cutting machine. There was something satisfying about brushing off the metal shavings of the metallic keys off the station because it was always covered.
In middle school, it became a place where my dad would drop me off after school and my mom, who worked on the next block, would take me home. I would sit in a chair right next to the entrance, try to get some homework done or just pass the time and grab a can of Coca Cola from the fridge and a pack of gum, the Japanese kind that had four round pieces in a box. Those were the best, even if they almost immediately lost their flavor upon chewing.
Nisei Week parades were still spent in front of the store, but for a moment, I lost a connection to the shop, or maybe I just didn’t have a strong enough connection to go often. During this time, my grandfather handed the reigns to the current owner, Norichan (as we call him).
Towards the latter years of college and after my grandmother passed away, I moved in with my grandfather and began to appreciate and understand their story and learned how it laid a foundation for my upbringing, spending time in Little Tokyo.
More recently, I realized just how big of a role Anzen Hardware has played in my life when I came across a comic by an illustrator, Rob Sato, which featured the store. I'm always surprised to see its role in the life of others. Generations of people have fond memories of the store in so many ways that I couldn’t not have imagined.
A silver lining during the pandemic came when Anzen had a collaboration with CRFT by Maki, a clothing store in Little Tokyo. The goal and idea was to have a legacy business with strong branding partner with a newer business and to have them both elevate each other’s visibility, but to also create a relationship with the older business in a mentor role. Nori, the Anzen staff, and Brian Kito (of Fugetsu-Do)'s excitement towards seeing people in the community during a time when business was slow made it worth it.
Small businesses make up the fabric of the communities we love so much but for so many of us, we end up working in big business where life can be more comfortable, whatever that means. If this trend continues and these long standing businesses close up shop without a sustainable influx of small businesses opening in its place, what is the future of these communities? What is the future of Little Tokyo? Wouldn’t it be nice if a small business could provide a comfortable lifestyle?
I love everything about Anzen Hardware and am amazed how it has survived for so long. It’s a testament to the hard work that was put into it (7 days a week, morning till night) and the support of its customers and community. It has created memories and a space for so many, put four kids through college, created relationships with its neighboring businesses, and established a home in Little Tokyo. I sometimes think that my grandparents left the store as an excuse for the family and its friends to stay connected to Little Tokyo. I hope we can make them proud and keep it alive.
For its 75th anniversary, I don’t think Norichan and the the folks at Anzen Hardware have a plan to celebrate such an accomplishment, but I have some ideas I hope will come to fruition. We hope to see you there.