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The Last 2x4

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The rubbery World War II vintage gas masks were marked down to $15 and the manager’s special bargains looked as if somebody’s junk drawer had been haphazardly heaped onto a table.

The mostly male customers quietly rummaged through the shelves and picked through what little merchandise was left, finding a nut driver here, a saw rack there, knobs and nails. They plunked down cash or credit cards for the last time as Lomita Lumber and Hardware closes its doors today after 74 years in business.

As the end neared, owner Bob Clauss fielded telephone calls and traded barbs with customers who have been coming to the store for more than 20 years.

“You’re a nice guy,” Clauss mumbled to customer Jonathan Miller, who was buying $5.73 worth of hinges. “I don’t care what your wife says.”

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You can’t get ribbed like that at too many other lumber stores around here, said Clauss, 56, whose sense of humor reaches all the way to the red polo shirt on his back. It says: “The Studs Are Better at Lomita Lumber and Hardware.”

Personal attention and recognition have helped Clauss, who likes to call himself the Lord of Lumber, make a go of his business in Lomita since he bought it in 1980 after several other careers. Still, over recent years, he has seen business swept away by the big guys such as Home Depot. And let’s face it, he said, homeowners these days have less money for remodeling than they used to.

“The day of the small lumber store is gone,” Clauss said as he sat behind the counter with a large mug of coffee nestled between his hands. “The big guys are taking over.”

So he said yes when the owner of a Riverside wheel factory approached him months ago and made an attractive offer to buy the property as a site for a tire and wheel store.

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Andrew Dugas wandered into Clauss’ store Thursday morning, just to see what was left in the half-empty lumber and hardware outlet where a 50% liquidation sale has been going on for weeks. The store has special memories for the former Narbonne High School shop teacher. He used to supplement his teaching income 25 years ago by working at the store on Saturdays.

“I could practically make more money working here one day a week than teaching the rest of the week,” he said with a laugh.

The big guys, Clauss said, cannot give the same kind of service as the smaller operators even if they offer lower prices. “I liken it to going into Motel 6 and asking if there is room service.”

Lomita Lumber and Hardware was founded in 1922 by the Gardiner family, which called it Gardiner’s Lumber, said David Wilkinson, who bought the store in 1953 and sold it in 1980 to Clauss.

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He said the original store was across the street from its current Pacific Coast Highway location and was surrounded by chicken and rabbit ranches. PCH was a dirt strip then instead of a busy paved thoroughfare. And Lomita was part of the county, not a city of 21,000.

Wilkinson, 76, has been a part-time worker in the store since he sold it. He was supposed to stay for six months to help with the transition, but who could leave a place where the front shop used to be an old home, and where old-timers stop by to kibitz and local contractors pop in and out for the odds and ends they need?

The 12,000-square-foot store--the smallest of its kind in Southern California, according to Al Reed of the Southern California Lumber Assn.--has always held a hodgepodge of everything you needed. What’s left are empty shelves and an odd assortment of wet patch roof cement, fasteners and moldings, asphalt emulsion, turnbuckles, J bolts, fasteners, moldings and a 1975 GMC flatbed truck.

Yet Clauss has few regrets. He won’t have anyone to talk to anymore, but he is making money off the deal. “Don’t cry for me. We did all right,” he said.

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The question now is how to celebrate the store’s last day. Clauss is thinking of having beer for everyone.

Wilkinson is lobbying for martinis.


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