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By Kate Volkman
A customer walks into Tuggey's with a fluorescent light bulb in his hand one Thursday morning. Before he even opens his mouth, store employee Ron Peetz leads him to the appropriate aisle for a replacement.
This is standard practice at the venerable hardware store at 3885 24th Street. Tuggey's is renowned for its helpful service and expert staff, who greet you at the door and rush to find the right extension cord, picture hanger, or tub stopper.
According to Denny Giovannoli, whose family has owned and operated the store for nearly 50 years, people-pleasing is what Tuggey's is all about. That friendly attitude, combined with a full stock of fix-it supplies, has created a business with perhaps the longest run of any shop on 24th Street.
Tuggey's has been a Noe Valley institution for over a century. It opened as Sawyer's Hardware in 1898, but was renamed Tuggey's when William Tuggey bought it a year or so later. Tuggey passed the store on to his son Gene, who sold it to Denny Giovannoli's father, Bob Giovannoli, in 1957.
His dad was a perfect fit for the hardware business, Denny says. Living just a few blocks away on Sanchez Street, Bob started out as a delivery boy at age 16, and returned to work fulltime at Tuggey's after serving the Army as a CPA during World War II.
The Tuggey family soon recognized his talents.
"Gene decided one day that my dad was going to buy [the store]. He closed the front door and said, 'Come on, we're going to the bank today. You're going to buy it today,'" Denny recalls. "He made it real easy for him. It was pretty neat."
The first few years were fairly difficult, as "Noe Valley was empty then," says Denny, who along with his three brothers and sister grew up working in the store. "All the stores [on 24th Street] were vacant. There was very little business here." But his father's commitment to customer service kept the business alive. "Making sure people got what they needed and were taken care of came first," says Denny.
Bob sold Denny the business in 1976, and officially retired, but he continued to work in the store for many years. He passed away in 1995.
"My dad was a real role model," Denny says with admiration. "He was a good listener. Certain people have a certain way about them, where they teach without even trying to. And he seemed to have that quality, which taught me a lot, too."
Now Denny, who lives in San Anselmo with his wife Laura and their son Alex, is teaching the trade to the next generation. Guitar-player Alex, 14, has been helping out at the store since he was 10.
"I learn a lot from my dad, like fixing things and his work ethic," Alex says. "And the guys who work here, Ron and Geary, I learn a lot from them, too--to keep moving and when something needs to get done, you do it."
Ron Peetz is Tuggey's only full-time employee. Geary Holst and Jordan Park both work part-time. As for Denny, he puts in 70 hours a week, arriving daily at 7:15 a.m. and leaving typically around 5:30 p.m. At 57 he says, "It's a lot of work, but it's been worth it. I'd rather do this than work for somebody else."
Denny handles all the inventory, using a tried-and-true strategy he learned from his father. "There's a formula here, even though it doesn't look like there is," he laughs. "Keep it basic. And just get plenty of it. The new things that come out that are basic, you get those also."
The open, clean-swept hardware store does indeed carry a large selection of the basics, neatly arranged on pegs and in bins. The shop stocks everything from nuts and bolts, literally, to batteries, cleaning products, gardening tools, audio/visual cords, power drills, and ladders. The largest selection can be found in the plumbing section, which is Tuggey's specialty. "I was going to be a plumber," Denny explains.
Customer David Plotkin, a contractor with Granite Electric, stops by to pick up caulk and a couple of screws. Plotkin says, "Tuggey's is a great place. I work all over the city, but I come whenever I'm in the neighborhood. They're a terrific little neighborhood store--always worth stopping."
Peetz confirms that a lot of the store's customers are contractors, even from outside the state, because "we're the only ones that carry the parts," he says.
But most of Tuggey's customers are Noe Valley neighbors. And perhaps surprisingly, a lot are women. Denny says 50 percent of his customers are women, "during the week, especially," he notes. "They're putting in light bulbs and fixing things. We get a lot of women who are handy people. A lot of them are doing work for other people, which is pretty cool."
The words are barely out of his mouth when Fiona Smythe and her 18-month-old daughter Chloe arrive to pick up some light bulbs. "Whatever we happen to need they generally seem to have it," Smythe says as Chloe runs up and down the aisle. "And I much prefer coming here than going to the bigger hardware stores. It's local, that's a big reason we come. There's always someone to help you, which is really nice--I always have a question because I'm just not that experienced when it comes to hardware."
The section Denny plans to expand next is the electrical supplies. He intends to continue adding more and more stock to the store until he's ready to sell. He hopes to retire by the time he's 62.
He's already arranged a new display of lighting fixtures and shades next to the front window--which might get in the way come December, when it's time to lay out the electric train.
"Kids wait for the train at the holidays," he says. "There was one year when I wasn't going to do it, and my dad said, 'You've got to do it.' He said, 'You started it and the kids wait for it,' and I said, 'I don't feel like it.' He said, 'Well, you have to do it. And then we had Alex, and it's fun. The kids really like it."
Elmer and Elmira, the two dummies that sit in the shop's window, are another specialty enjoyed by children and adults alike. Elmer is dressed in Denny's father's baseball cap and Elmira wears an old dress of Laura's.
"We have people who actually stop here and talk to them!" says Denny. "And the kids are just mesmerized. They'll come in and they'll touch them. In fact, one year I had a walkie-talkie. The kids would come in and they'd touch them, and I'd go, 'What do you want?' and they'd just jump. We've done a few things that are pretty funny, but that was a lot of fun."
But serving the customers is still the best part of the job, he says. "Tuggey's is like a big living room because with most of the people, in fact all of them, we've become friends. Even if we don't know each other by name, it's a very friendly atmosphere, a very comfortable place to be. And we're very lucky."
Kate Volkman is writing a series on the history of businesses in Noe Valley. She also does oral histories for families and companies.