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Hansen: Built to last, Ganahl’s a marvel in today’s retail

It has a funny name but that just adds to its allure.

It’s not a “home center” with Jacuzzis and a hot dog stand outside. It doesn’t have an eager Solar City kiosk salesperson trying to woo you with savings.

But Ganahl Lumber Co. does have country music playing overhead, and you can probably get a good deal on leftover Memorial Day American flags — just in time for the Fourth.

Believe it or not, Ganahl is “the oldest lumberyard and hardware supply store in the state of California,” according to the company.

Since 1884, the family and employee-owned business has been providing lumber, tools and various sundries to landowners, speculators and ne’er-do-wells. Its headquarters is in Anaheim, not far from Disneyland. There are only nine stores total, but they still fill a niche, serving both the do-it-yourself enthusiast and professional contractor.

Even the DIYer has a certain legitimacy at Ganahl that you can immediately sense from the parking lot. These people don’t drive imported sedans. They drive ramshackle trucks and Jeeps. Their trucks have specialized beds with industrial liners and overhead steel racks. The closest you’ll get to a standard car is a Subaru.

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Some of the stores have a garden area, but you know, gardening is not really hardware, so it’s nothing fancy.

You might be better off tending to something on your own — like a farm to feed your livestock. If you have any questions about that, ask the Irvines or the Yorbas. They were always good at cultivating the old ranchos.

Ganahl stores don’t have everything, but they have enough of what you need.

They’ve had enough for 132 years, so quit your bellyaching. If you need an in-store Starbucks, boil your own pot of coffee.

Look, they’ve got Duckbill deck wreckers and rebar benders, hummingbird feeders and fountain pumps, window paint and cork rolls, wasp killers and drywall mud. You can get Goop and Gorilla Glue, Makita and DeWalt, pool lights and conduit.

And for your non-air-conditioned warehouse, you can get a 3-foot-diameter fan that looks like it could cool a nuclear power station.

Ganahl employees know, however, that you might be a little intimidated by the contractor factor. It’s obvious if you’re not a professional, so they will approach you fairly quickly in your store journey and ask, “Can I help you find something?”

That’s code for “it’s easier if you just tell me what you want, instead of you walking around like an idiot.”

There are bigger and sleeker home improvement stores, to be sure. The Home Depot and Lowes command about 45% of the entire market, according to industry sources. No one else comes close.

But it’s not always size. Location and timing helps. And in Orange County, both were important during boom times. For Ganahl, it began when Austrian immigrant Christian Ganahl and his brother Frank moved to Los Angeles from St. Louis where they were shopkeepers. Business was flourishing in Los Angeles, and by 1904 Christian opened the Anaheim store.

Remember that hardware stores were always the earliest retail establishments. They had to be. Where else could you get the shovels, railroad ties and cattle fencing that built the West?

According to the National Retail Hardware Assn., many of the hardware stores that started in the late 1800s survived for more than 100 years. They were small, family-owned businesses that knew their customers — like Ganahl.

It’s remarkable to think about what was happening in 1884. For example, the first long-distance telephone call took place from Boston to New York. The eight-hour workday was established on May 1. And the first brick of the Statue of Liberty was laid.

If that statue had been erected here instead of New York, chances are Ganahl would have had the opportunity to provide the concrete or scaffolding.

Either way, at the end of the day, construction is less about glamour than function. There’s a no-nonsense practicality to wood, nails and tools.

Behind the supplies is the design and ingenuity to make it happen and keep it going. By contrast, think about the strip center stores of today that barely last six months.

Then imagine 132 years of family, sweat and courage.

Makes you want to build a hammock and take a nap.

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DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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