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Old Tools Pretty Well Nailed Down : Hardware Store Is a Veritable Museum

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Tom Smith and Anthony Parker went to the Trading Post for a nut and bolt. No trouble there. Then, Parker made his usual mistake. He looked up. Half an hour later, leading Parker by the elbow, Smith had almost managed to get his friend out the door.

“Would you look at that stuff,” said Parker, still dazed, as Smith maneuvered him outside.

This is known to happen frequently at the Trading Post, a dimly lit shop near downtown Los Angeles where customers go to buy hardware, only to be transfixed by owner Jose L. Magallon’s collection of antique tools.

Mecca for the Curious

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The Smithsonian it’s not. But a prominent sign outside the store advertises an “Antique Tool Museum"--about as accurate a description as any for a place that treasures lowly implements of work. Shiny new hardware may keep Magallon and his family fed, but it is the haphazard display of blackened old tools and farm equipment that has made the store a mecca for neighbors looking to kill time and for people who get a kick out of studying old chisels and meat grinders.

Suspended from the ceiling on racks and lining the upper shelves of the Glendale Boulevard shop are more than 200 antique tools dating to the 19th Century. There are rows of ancient wood planes, a jumble of handmade calipers, protractors and skews, a 1902-vintage wine press, a pedal-driven grinding wheel and several age-dulled buck saws and broad axes. The wall above the store’s front door is covered with old Model T Ford cranks and wrenches. The vast assortment ranges from an inch-high file to a 6-foot-long cultivator, an outmoded human-propelled plow.

Charting Their History

On a back wall is a yellowed chart describing the steady forward march of tools through history. One heading proclaims: “Civilization Through Tools!” Another takes a patriotic tack: “Tools Make America Great!”

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Progress is not so steady in Jose Magallon’s world. As any collector knows, the more antiques are in demand, the greater the difficulty in adding to a collection. Lately, Magallon finds that old tools that were once discarded are now ending up in bidding wars at garage sales and antique auctions.

“Tools are becoming--what’s the word?--trendy. Yeah, trendy,” Magallon said.

A former bartender and bus boy, Magallon, 52, is a recent convert to this line of thought. He is still learning about many of the turn-of-the-century items on display in his store, which he bought in 1976. The original owner was the late John Fryberg, a man so obsessed with tools that he started a tool collector’s society in Los Angeles, one of several such groups in the United States.

What’s It For?

Asked by a customer to name and describe the purpose of a dark, wrought-iron thing that looks like a vise and leans against a wall in the store, Magallon was momentarily stumped. Then, scrutinizing the device more closely, he said, “I’m not sure, but it looks like a vise.”

This never would have happened when Fryberg owned the store, said his widow, Rosalind Fryberg. “My husband knew every single thing in his store,” she said. “He just knew old tools like nobody else.”

Fryberg opened the store in 1949. At first, it was a second-hand hardware store. But Fryberg, the son of a carpenter and cabinetmaker, had an eye for the odd tool. Soon he had developed a group of regulars who brought him old tools from estate sales or found in basements or old storage sheds or buried in the closets of abandoned houses and factories. Sometimes, Fryberg paid for the tools. Other times, he traded for tools that he wanted.

“He never got rid of the real antiques,” Rosalind Fryberg said. “Just duplicates or run-of-the-mill tools. It got so he knew what the real gems were.”

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It was only natural that a man with such an eye and such an obsession would take the creme de la creme of tools and make a collection out of them. Among his customers, Fryberg found others who shared his enthusiasm. The club he founded to foster the appreciation of tools, Preserving Arts & Skills of the Trade (PAST), now has 200 members in Southern California. He encouraged people to take tours. At least four times a year, Rosalind Fryberg recalls, nuns from Our Lady of Loretto grammar school would lead their students around the store.

“My husband was so thrilled when people poked around,” she said.

These days, the Trading Post is not quite the attraction it once was. For one thing, there are no longer barrels and boxes filled with second-hand tools for sale. For another, Rosalind Fryberg removed many of her husband’s more unusual items when she sold the store to Magallon after Fryberg died in 1976. “My son Bob has some wonderful things that we used to display,” she said. “He took the bellows and the best spittoons.”

Still Admired

Still, Magallon’s remaining collection is eyed appreciatively by people who wander into the store. On weekends, neighbors drift in with children and grandparents in tow. Politely apologizing to Magallon for the intrusion, they roam the aisles, their faces upturned in awe.

“The children like to look at the bombs and the swords,” said Aurelia Munoz, pointing to Magallon’s small collection of defused torpedoes, bayonets and a scimitar as she shepherded her young son and two daughters through the store.

Occasionally, a collector comes in, trying to persuade Magallon to sell his treasures. A man with a German accent came in once and asked Luis Billa, 27, a store clerk, if he would sell one of the handmade wood planes. When Billa replied that the collection was not for sale, the man opened a loose-leaf notebook filled with photographs of dozens of ancient wood planes that he had acquired.

“The guy said it was the last one he needed to complete his collection,” Billa said. “He was begging. He offered $300, but the boss wouldn’t sell.”

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Regular Customers

Magallon says that some of his regular customers become jaded about the old tools after a while. But there are some who never seem to get enough. When Tom Smith and Anthony Parker, who do construction odd jobs in the Pico-Union area, come in for equipment, they have a hard time leaving.

Smith, 70, a leathery-faced man who once was a steady supplier of old tools to Fryberg, walked around the place, muttering repeatedly about “yesteryear.” Parker, 35, stood entranced, his gaze focused on the ceiling.

“See that piece of wood over there?” Smith asked, nudging Parker. “That’s a doubletree. They used it to connect horses to wagons. They had them for single horses, too. Those were singletrees.”

Parker nodded, then turned his attention to a group of sickles above his head. “Father Time could use one of those,” Parker said.

“He probably did,” Smith said. “Come on, let’s go. Let’s go.”

They did. Twenty minutes later.


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