In the heart of the antiques district on La Brea north of Wilshire, there’s a shrine to the mundane, to one woman’s passion for the things we never think about yet can’t live without. Drawer pulls. Towel racks. Shower heads. Hinges, handles and hooks.
When you enter Liz’s Antique Hardware, a dizzying collection of household objects ranging in vintage from the 1860s through the 1960s, you’re first drawn to dozens of ceiling fans whirring overhead -- here a dark cherry French Colonial that could have come from Raffles or Rick’s, there a Streamline Moderne in gleaming chrome. “Our first-time customers say they’re overwhelmed,” said Liz Gordon, who opened the shop in 1992. “They need to get their bearings.”
Nearly 2 million items compete for shelf and ceiling space at Liz’s, a store no bigger than a neighborhood dry cleaner’s, which is what it used to be. If you’re shopping for doorknobs, allow lots of time. Liz’s has 50,000 of them.
“We’re the largest fully concentrated antique hardware store in the world,” said Gordon. “More than 75% of our inventory is original, but if you want large quantities of an item that’s in short supply, say 50 identical brass Spanish Revival wall sconces, we manufacture and stock those too.”
Gordon, 47, got into the game when she was 21, a college dropout wondering what she was going to do with her life after being fired as a waitress in Chicago. She went to Cape Cod, spent four rainy days in antiques shops, brought her haul to a flea market in St. Charles, Ill., and made $400 in one weekend. She borrowed $3,500 from her grandmother, bought out the contents of a furniture warehouse at a liquidation sale, took over the lease and fell in love with the hardware. “I was going through barrel after barrel of doorknobs, and light was streaming through the windows, and it made the brass shine, and I thought, ‘This is beautiful. This is my future.’ ”
After running successful stores in Chicago and San Diego, she moved to Los Angeles, where the demand for merchandise is unending. “We’re busy nonstop,” Gordon said.
She travels to Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Britain, Mexico and Argentina for new inventory. Her Italian is fluent, and she knows enough Spanish and French to speak “the language of hardware.” She goes to trade shows, flea markets, estate sales. She buys from contractors and wrecking companies, abandoned warehouses and small-town hardware stores across the United States. Customers converting their homes from one period to another bring in their old hardware and start anew.
Gordon is particularly fond of the “midcentury” period, hardware from the 1950s and ‘60s. “Remember those old Schlage door locksets -- they came in aluminum and satin chrome? A lot of us grew up with those, and they have a sort of emotional tug.” She comes across as savvy and street-smart, but her voice whoops with delight when she stumbles upon what she considers a treasure. “I’m having a ball!” she exclaimed on a recent Sunday morning at the Long Beach outdoor antiques market. “I found a 1960s shell light, it hangs very low, and some great, great 1950s chrome lights!”
Gordon has discovered some of her rare pieces in Europe -- “I found a gorgeous Art Deco doorknob in France made of what looks like actual threads of brass in the shape of a woman” -- which makes her store a magnet for movie set designers who seek to invoke other times and other places. Liz’s supplied the hardware for “Charlie’s Angels,” “Antwone Fisher,” “Legally Blonde,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Seabiscuit,” “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” “Stuart Little” and “Pearl Harbor” as well as such TV series as “The X-Files.”
The store’s focus, however, is right here at home. “We’re all about Old L.A,” said sales clerk Brooke Aleman. She rattled off a list of celebrity customers: Gwen Stefani, John Malkovich, Cher, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Bridget Fonda and Danny Elfman, Beck, George Hamilton, John Leguizamo, Jimmy Kimmel, Eddie Vetter, Michael Richards. “And Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne. All the hardware you see in their house is ours. Like the doorknobs with the crucifixes.”
Aleman fished some drawer pulls out of a box to show how they reflected historical events. “Look,” she said, “here’s a Mayan theme. These were popular after the opening of the Panama Canal. And look at the fans on this one. This was made after Commodore Perry’s visit to Japan. And these pyramids, Egypt was the big theme after archeologists opened up the tomb of King Tut.” Then Aleman pulled out a set of eight tiny cast nickel coffin handles, designed for the remains of a pet or child, for $38 apiece. “I love the coffin hardware,” Aleman said.
“Everything here has a story,” sales clerk Jerzy Bamberger said. “It’s like a museum.” His favorites included an iron coffin handle with the face of Jesus for $225, an off-center handblown glass doorknob filled with bubbles for $200, and a “speakeasy,” or peering device for a door with a one-way mirror, for $95.
Gordon has endowed a foundation, the Research and Educational Fund of Architectural and Furniture Hardware, so that young scholars someday might study antique hardware.
“There’s not much money in the fund now, but my dream of dreams is that it will be like a Rhodes scholarship some day. I would like young people to know that you can start from nothing. I used to go through the phone book in search of a career.
“Today I employ 16 highly trained and gifted people, homeowners all over the United States and Europe turn to me when they can’t find an item they need, and I would like to think I started a trend that influenced millions of people. When I started in this business, people were destroying what was old in their homes. Today, they’re restoring them.”
Where it is
Liz’s Antique Hardware
453 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles
Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to
Saturday. Closed Sunday.