Exterior of Great Wall Hardware at 1821 Taraval Street. Great Wall’s Chinese language sign reflects the large Chinese-speaking population in the Parkside, and the business’s commitment to maintaining Chinese culture in the district.
By Kerri Young
Great Wall Hardware is a San Francisco legacy business located at 1821 Taraval Street in the Parkside District. Established in 1983 by Robert and Mariana Chow, the family-owned store features over 20,000 items for sale, including electrical, garden, painting, plumbing, cleaning, hardware, tools, and lumber. The Chow family first established their business in order to help their friends and neighbors with construction projects, and they have grown into a store that not only offers supplies but also general contracting services.
The business joined the Legacy Business Registry on September 24, 2018, nominated by then-District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang. While several businesses in the district qualify for legacy status, Great Wall Hardware is the only Parkside business on the registry to date. It is among other neighborhood hardware stores on the registry, including Cole Hardware (Cole Valley), Papenhausen Hardware (West Portal), Cliff’s Variety (Castro), and Brownie’s Hardware (Polk).
We recently chatted with Albert Chow, Great Wall’s owner, and son of original owners Robert and Mariana Chow. Born and raised in San Francisco, Albert moved with his family from Chinatown out to the Sunset once they had enough money to start the hardware store. Today, he is deeply involved in the Parkside community, and is the President of the People of Parkside Sunset (POPS), a neighborhood group that helps promote businesses and quality of life. Through his involvement with the organization, he has helped to run annual (pre-pandemic) movie night events that bring many families together each October, promoted the wellbeing of small businesses in the corridor, and assisted other neighborhood organizations with their events and community activities.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
For those not familiar with Great Wall Hardware, where is it and what would you like people to know about the business?
“We are a Taraval Street home center, a family-run business. I’m second generation…and we pride ourselves in having about 22,000-23,000 products in the store. One of the things that sets us apart is that, you come in, and let us know about any issue in any house in the Sunset, and we can help you out.”
What was your reaction to becoming a legacy business, one of the few in the Parkside?
“I do want to promote the Parkside, so I thought, what better than to sign up for myself [for the Legacy Business Registry]? Agencies come to POPS, putting together events for small merchants, and I’ll always be the first one to raise my hand, so I can tell people about my experiences. I have to say that you had to write a lot of commentary on your own business [for the application], they really wanted you to bust out all the history and changes over time. I had to look at old details and old photos to keep track of it in my head, but together with my sister and my mother we were able to piece together the business history…it really helped me to think through the changes we’ve gone through.”
How have you navigated the Covid-19 crisis as a small business owner?
“I have to say that I have a little survivor’s guilt. We were named an essential business because when this all started, Mayor Breed named us one, so since the beginning we’ve been open. Our businesses changed right away. We went from being a hardware store to an emergency store, and we couldn’t keep things in stock…demand for certain things went from zero to 100, just like that. It was also a different business environment because the rules changed everyday..because we need to wash our hands all the time, all of a sudden we were selling soap! Customers would come through the store asking for things we didn’t carry; that was the beginning for us when Covid hit.
“And then we went back to being a hardware store because everyone was at home wanting to do home projects, like we ran out of soil. People wanted to start planting gardens, fix up their homes…and parents are at home trying to teaching their kids something!”
About supporting other businesses in the Parkside during the Covid crisis:
“I’m going to offer some true knowledge about the situation. Again I have survivor’s guilt, there were a lot of other merchants that had to close, who were finding ways to keep their employees on the payroll, and make rent. Those people are the real heroes here.
“So what I did was forward PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] (and other loan) information to any Parkside merchants who were on our [POPS] list. Unfortunately that was all I could do; we were not doing events and we all had to self-isolate. The people with businesses forced to close, they were the ones with their minds going 100 mph. A big thing was that a lot of businesses could not claim this as a natural disaster; the pandemic was not listed as a natural disaster on their insurance policies, so many businesses advocated at City Hall to get the pandemic reclassified in order to pay their employees and pay their rent. That was a big one.”
On POPS involvement in organizing the Sunset Farmer’s Market & Mercantile, which had its first day on Sunday, July 5th:
“It was great to see people out for the first time in a while. It’s the first one ever for the Sunset! It was subsidized by the city; and because it was subsidized, we were able to sell vendor slots very inexpensively.”
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Thank you to everyone who made today’s launch of the Outer Sunset Farmers Market & Mercantile such a success! This new open-air market was over a year in the making, wholly independent, and built from scratch by and for the Sunset. We’re so grateful to Angie Petitt-Taylor, @sunsetmercantile, @pops_sf, and @sfoewd for the leadership and partnership that made this possible. This market started as an idea we talked about with neighborhood leaders all the way back in 2018, and it’s been an incredible journey to see it come to life today. If you missed it, don’t worry — it’s not going anywhere. The Outer Sunset Farmers Market & Mercantile will be here every Sunday from 9am to 3pm going forward, on 37th Avenue between Ortega and Pacheco. Masks, hand washing/sanitizing, and social distancing all required. #SunsetStrong
What is one thing you’d like people to know about the Parkside?
“The Parkside is the perfect place if you want to hang out like a local. It’s not crowded and we have a great beach scene; it’s more mellow here because the population density is lower. We have great restaurants and shops out this way, so if you want to hang out like a local and experience what true San Franciscans experience, this is a great place to start.
“I know we don’t have [iconic] landmarks here, and we’ve always gotten the least amount of attention. It’s always been considered a bedroom community, which is good and bad right? Coming here, my mission has been to promote the businesses here, promote its uniqueness, and promote good wholesome fun.”
Great Wall Hardware is open (with social distancing protocols in place), Mon-Fri: 8:00am-6:00pm, Sat: 10:00am-6:00pm, and Sun: 10:00am-3:00pm. You can reach the store at 415-566-1511.