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Glen Ellen Originals: Bill’s Hardware

By B.J. Blanchard and the Glen Ellen Historical Society

It was not so long ago that Bill’s Hardware disappeared, maybe around 2000. But the store was great if you were tired of pretty boutiques and oh-so-cool tasting rooms. Bill’s was an honest store, useful. It sold things you needed on a Saturday morning, like weed-whacker line. Or 60-watt light bulbs. Or free kittens. Customer comes in, needs a smoke alarm — Bill’s got it in the back on the left. Another customer comes in, needs spray shellac — Bill’s got it there on the bottom shelf. You need a gopher trap? “Got it here somewhere.” Useful.

In the early 80s, Bill’s was on the corner of Carquinez and Arnold, later at the Jack London Village, and finally it was behind and under Bob Burns’ little office building beyond Miel (now the Glen Ellen Star restaurant).

Creaking wood floors, little clouds of dust rising with your footfall, aisles of hammers, wrenches, copper plumbing, connectors. Cigarette butts. Walls plastered with charts of furnace and pipe fittings, a guide called “Spanish Vocabulary for Grape Growers.” Shovels, scoops for grain or manure, ax handles. Seeds: yellow pepper, squash, broccoli, bachelor buttons, marigolds, morning glories, snapdragons. Locks, paint brushes. Down another aisle: rakes, lamp oil, watering cans, nails, drywall staples, deck screws, door handles, work suspenders, and a hundred little drawers with nuts, screws, washers, gaskets. Bill would say, “Albertson’s offers a million things and nothing you need. I’ll give you a choice of two of exactly what you need.” Then, on the back wall: paperback books. Shelves of used paperback books because Bill was a reader. Erica Jong and John Le Carre sat next to the “Poisons” shelf, something called “Big Stinky Fly Trap,” and “Giant Destroyer: The Effective Gas Killer of Gophers, Moles, Woodchucks.” Metal gopher traps. Rat bait. Yellow jacket and wasp traps. Hay forks. Rubber boots, sawblades, kerosene lamps, work lamps. Useful stuff.

The checkout counter, piled high with envelopes, invoices, calendar pages from February, Christmas lights, an old shoe, screw drivers, slug killer. Bill would be in the back when you came in, police scanner blaring, radio on, and talking to a customer all at once. Bill lived in a cabin up on Bennett Valley Road with three cats. Originally a New Yorker, tempered in Oregon and years on the road as a Buzz-Cardozo greeting card salesman, he landed in Glen Ellen in 1978. He worked at Ben Franklin Five and Dime and for Ollie Olsen in Kenwood before buying Ollie out of the Glen Ellen Store in 1984. Why did he listen to the scanner? “I’m nosy,” says Bill, “and I have a lot of friends in the fire department.”

Every few months a hand-painted sign out front announced: “Free kittens.” You could grab a spitting, flea-bitten, nasty furball from under the sink in the back bathroom, and your kitty would grow to be a sweet, loving, serious mouser. We named ours Spike and Lulu.

Sometime later, Bill’s truck was found at dawn upside down in the creek along Warm Springs Road. He was pulled from the wreckage by his friends, the Glen Ellen volunteer firefighters. He died somewhere else years later.

For more information about the Glen Ellen Historical Society, visit www.glenellenhistorialsociety. org.