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Hardware store sells tools, ambience

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Editor's note: The Times sent staff writer Richard Danielson to do a story on Restoration Hardware, an upscale housewares store that opened Thursday at 711 S Dakota Ave. in Old Hyde Park Village. But instead of a regular news story, the first thing he wrote was an e-mail to his wife. That dispatch appears below:

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Dear Cyndi,

I've just returned from doing my reporting on this new housewares store, Restoration Hardware, in Hyde Park Village. I love the place. And I hate the place. In fact, I hate it because I love it.

Let me explain: They've got the Arts and Crafts entertainment armoire we've been looking for. It's exactly as you've described it. I bet you'll think it's perfect.

It's also $2,400. They've also got a bunch of other Arts and Crafts-style furniture (as well as a lot of Mission stuff), along with the lamps and mirrors to go with them. They've got neat gadgets and trinkets and doodads. They've even got a really subtle, elegant light sage green paint _ just like the color we've discussed trying to find for the living room.

So what's not to like?

A couple of things. First, the prices are TO THE MOON, ALICE! It's not a hardware store, but they do carry some hardware and tool-type items. There's the $32 hammer with the signature of TV handyman Tim Allen. There are sturdy, British-made short-handled plungers for $12. There's three sizes of galvanized steel buckets, ranging from $27 to $35.

By comparison, the same stuff at Home Depot on N Dale Mabry is a lot less. (I checked.) Hammers there run $5 to $15, with the top o' the line framing hammer coming in at $28.67. Plungers go for $2 to $5. And a galvanized 10-quart pail sells for $5.47. (Of course, that bucket does not have a brass-colored name plate that says "Made in England for Restoration Hardware.")

And if the tools are priced like that, who knows what markup we'll pay on the stuff we do buy?

I guess what makes me resent the place so much is that it has me, as a consumer, precisely sized up and figured out. Steve Gordon, the guy who started the place 18 years ago, is a former California family therapist. He decided to open a housewares store after trying to find period hardware (doorknobs, towel racks and such) for a Victorian Queen Anne home he was restoring in Eureka, Calif. Walking around the store, I felt like I was being manipulated by a master. (The store's profile customer is 35-and-up, a homeowner, a parent and consumer with higher-than-average income.)

In fact, the store's managers told me that Gordon and two other people do all the buying themselves and look for things that they somehow connect with emotionally.

That explains why price and practicality (defined as just the right amount of usefulness, but not too much) are clearly secondary considerations. Why else would anyone buy a $175 hammered copper mail box? Or a Russian-made submarine clock that sells for $75? The thing is designed to withstand the shock wave from an enemy depth charge, but I doubt that even a house with many small children would deliver that kind of abuse.

The overall result is an inventory that's just classic enough, just nostalgic enough and just kitschy enough. Everybody likes to think of themselves as having a particular sense of style, but this place seems to press so many internal buttons so expertly that I feel less like an individual possessed by a flair for the creative and more like an easy mark that some sharpie saw coming a mile off.

But what can I say? A demographic's a demographic. Looks like we've got to check this place out. And bring the checkbook.