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Westlake hardware store owner dispenses tools for life

The man stepped into the hardware shop looking fed up and frustrated.

He said he owned an apartment building and one of his tenants had disappeared months ago. A girl remained inside, but she refused to pay rent and wouldn't open the door.

"Señora, please," Juan Duarte asked the woman behind the cash register. "What can I do?"

Bertha Wooldridge made a quick phone call, then told Duarte: "Don't worry. Everything will be OK."

For 33 years, the owner of Westlake Plumbing and Hardware, a mom-and-pop shop just west of downtown L.A., has sold paint and toilets, power saws and duct tape — anything you need to fix your home. But pipes and screws aren't what draw people to the store.

It's Wooldridge.

Each day, the electronic doorbell beeps as people walk into the aroma of metal, wood and paint, looking for the shopkeeper to patch up their lives, in ways big and small.

Beep, beep: Bertha, my gas is about to be turned off. Beep, beep: Bertha, I think there's drug dealing on my street. Beep, beep: My son has to build a volcano for school and I'm not sure how to do it. My husband's out of work. My back hurts. I can't make jury duty.

Wooldridge knows everyone: lawyers, pharmacists, teachers, masseuses, community organizers, city officials. Best of all, she knows police. And in a tough neighborhood like this one, she's not afraid to call on them.

"I'm like the Yellow Pages," Wooldridge said with a laugh on a recent day. "I always know where to send people."

It's a role the 70-year-old never imagined playing when her husband persuaded her to open a hardware store near MacArthur Park.

They knew Westlake well. They had met a few blocks away when Bertha was 17 and moved into the same apartment building as Bob.

"He was so skinny back then," Wooldridge said. "He used to watch me leave my apartment from upstairs all the time."

Twenty years into marriage, Bob Wooldridge said he wanted to take on plumbing jobs. Bertha could run the store.

She thought it was a horrible idea. She had a job making good money at a bookbinding company. She knew nothing about hardware.

"I knew hammer, shovel, pick and wheelbarrow," Wooldridge said. "That's it. Everything else looked like junk."

::

They opened on Valentine's Day 1981.

In the years that followed, the store was broken into 18 times. Burglars shattered the front glass, smashed through the door, slipped children through tiny windows. They stole thousands of dollars in merchandise.

One time, five gunmen bolted into the shop. They closed the front door and barricaded Wooldridge and four others inside. They forced the owner to her knees near the galvanized pipes and shoved a gun to her head.

A woman cowered with her newborn near the entrance. Wooldridge asked the thieves to release her. They did, then they emptied the cash register and took off with Wooldridge's wedding ring.

Bob thought about closing, relocating to a safer location. But Wooldridge is not the kind of woman who runs away.

She had grown up in a "Yes, sir, No, sir" family of 10 siblings in El Paso. "My dad always told me growing up, 'Never let anyone put fear in you. Never let anyone control you.'"

Instead, the couple adjusted with every break-in. They pulled the brass and valuables out of the window displays, moved the cash register to a safer place and installed iron bars, cameras, panic buttons and the door chime.

They would sweep up the mess, call the police, call the glass company. Then, business as usual, Wooldridge opened the front door and took her place behind the cash register.

"This is ours," Wooldridge said. "We worked hard for it, and no one's going to take it all away just like that."

But if the shop was going to survive, Wooldridge knew she had to get help — for herself and for the neighborhood.

::

Little by little she began forging a relationship with officers at the Los Angeles Police Department's nearby Rampart station. She attended meetings, joined boards, met senior lead officers, sergeants and captains. She wrote down their names and phone numbers, invited them to visit her store.

She transformed a loft space above the shop into a community room, filled it with donated chairs and tables. There she formed Westlake Protectors, a neighborhood watch group.

At first, no one dared take part. It was the 1980s and crime was raging in the area. People feared police and retaliation from gangsters. But like a persistent aunt who won't take no for an answer, Wooldridge brought families around.

She was a mix of nice and tough, and people learned to trust her — even the men who questioned what in the world a woman like her could know about replacing a toilet.

"Today Bertha can fill up a room with 100 people at a moment's notice," said West Bureau Lt. Steven Ruiz, who worked with Wooldridge for four years. "That's how much people listen to her."

In one of her greatest victories, Wooldridge fought to tear down a drug-and-crime-infested halfway house down the street from the store 20 years ago. Today it is a playground and open space called Hope and Peace Park.

The hardware store's parking lot has doubled as a hockey rink, a carwash and a dance floor. The community room is packed with photos of all the events Wooldridge has hosted in three decades: Christmas parties, crime meetings, craft nights, emergency awareness workshops.

A few months ago, a shootout erupted in the apartments cater-cornered to the store, and the space upstairs became a shelter.

When Wooldridge saw residents being evacuated and escorted to buses waiting nearby, she spoke to police and offered up her community room. It was after 10 p.m. and she figured they would need refuge for two or three hours. In the end, more than 100 people, half of them children, had to spend the night there.

"I gave them water, coffee, whatever I could find," Wooldridge said. "I didn't have cookies, so I gave the kids candy. That was a terrible idea. Nobody slept all night."

Some tease her and call her the honorary mayor of Westlake. But the señora from the hardware store said she has no interest in politics. She's taken enough heat over the years for fervently supporting the police. Some even have questioned whether they were paying her.

"It's ridiculous," Bob Wooldridge said. "We've never taken a dime from anyone."

Their little hardware shop hasn't been broken into in years — perhaps because, at one point or another, Wooldridge has helped every nearby gangster's sister, mother or grandmother.

::

On a recent weeknight, she wiped down tables in the community room, preparing for her monthly neighborhood meeting.

A few women showed up with their children in tow. They grabbed a copy of the agenda and took a seat.

Wooldridge, speaking in her native Spanish sprinkled with heavily accented English, invited all the kids to the opening of a new community library. She informed them that the water fountain at Hope and Peace Park would be turned on in June.

Then, she turned the time over to her guests:

"Tell me," she said. "What's going on out there? What's on your mind?"

Ermelinda Guadarrama, a housekeeper and mother of three, said a homeless woman at the park was harassing schoolchildren. Ana Ortiz, a resident of 32 years, said she saw police investigating a body near the Food 4 Less. She also said she was having trouble with a rehab center next to her home.

"They yell and play music and make too much noise."

Wooldridge listened and nodded. She asked questions and took notes.

Then she said: "OK, let me see what I can do."

esme.bermudez@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATbermudez

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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