Over the last few decades, just about everything in Pilsen has been touched by change. But in that time, the face behind the counter at Alvarez Hardware has always been the same.
“I tell my grandson, you know you have to be a part of the community, they have to know who you are. You have to treat each and every one with respect,” said owner Rodolfo Alvarez. “Giving people the service is my passion. I like to be with people and talk to the people and give service to the people.”
Julian Alvarez says as long as he can remember, his grandfather has been a pillar of the community.
“If you walk around Pilsen and [people] see him, the people will be like, ‘Hey Mr. Alvarez!’ You know, they’ll salute him,” Julian said.
Rodolfo Alvarez’s jam-packed 18th Street store has been the place to go for Pilsen residents looking for a new shovel or pipe fitting since he bought the business from his father-in-law in the 1980s.
“I didn’t know nothing about the hardware business,” Rodolfo recalled. “My father-in-law offered the business to many of his clients. I was the last resort.”
Rodolfo said he was ultimately convinced by the opportunity to own his own business, but in the early days of running the shop, the finances were a bit touch-and-go.
“I used to run to the suppliers four or five times a day because I could not buy, let’s say, a box of elbows or nipples or whatever,” he said. “I used to buy five pieces at a time, six pieces here and there. And then when I come here, my wife says ‘they’re gone, go back! Here’s the money!’ It was a struggle, but it paid off.”
But over those first few years, he says the community taught him what it needed from its local hardware store.
“I learned what to get and sell our people. With the time, you know, it’s been changing, so now we sell a little bit of different merchandise according to the clientele and times.”
Now, Rodolfo Alvarez is teaching his grandson Julian the softer side of the hardware business — and how to give the service that keeps customers coming back.
“We have customers that moved out of the neighborhood, they go to the suburbs, out south, out west, out north,” said Julian. “They still come back because they know for a fact that we’ll take the time to explain things to them well.”
Julian remembers coming to the store as a teenager and taking the first steps in understanding the business.
“This is my second home, you know, we don’t pay for daycares. This was a daycare for me. So like, I grew up here,” he said. “Every Saturday morning we’d wake up early, go for the merchandise and bring it, mark it up. I would ask questions like, what does that do? What’s this used for? Why do people come for that? And my grandfather, you know, he would tell me.”
Rodolfo said he’s pleased with his grandson’s interest in taking over the business, as well as his affinity for customer service.
“I tell my grandson. There always will be a need for a hardware store in Pilsen, even though the big boxes are a monster and have a lot of things that we don’t have,” said Rodolfo. “The knowledge that we have and knowing what the community needs make us unique.”
“I’m definitely going to take this over and keep it ongoing. It’s like the legacy that we have,” said Julian. “He’s proud of me right now, too, you know? But yeah, I’m going to make him proud.”