LITTLE TOKYO — On a recent Sunday evening long-time customers, friends and family gathered around former Anzen Hardware proprietor Nori Takatani, clamoring to give him well wishes or to buy something from him one last time before his retirement. So many well-wishers crammed into Anzen’s narrow aisles it was hard to get from one end of the store to the other.
Anzen Hardware — a legacy business owned and operated by Takatani — just closed its prime location on 1st Street, but will be staying in the (extended) family and reopening down the street. The closure comes as gentrification continues to transform Little Tokyo, one of Los Angeles’ oldest neighborhoods, but offers a hopeful example of how legacy businesses can and do survive displacement.
Takatani has owned and operated the store since 1954, and while Los Angeles came to be dominated by Lowe’s and Home Depot, Anzen survived as a family-run store known for selling imported Japanese tools that were hard to find locally, and for Takatani’s deep knowledge of — for example — what kind of gardening shears you should buy. They sold Japanese pull-saws, elongated chisels, and other specitalty tools, along side neighborhood hardware store standards like house keys.
Mario Correa, a devoted customer, runs his own custom handmade furniture business and prefers working with Japanese hand tools.
“They sort of work almost the opposite of the way western hand tools work,” he said. “It’s a lot of working with your body. So it’s easier on you.” Correa often relied on Takatani’s expertise when it came to trying new tools. “Anytime I see something new, I talk to Nori about it, buy it, try it out, and yeah, it’s been cool like that — since the start of Mano Ya, our business.”
Takatani’s retirement comes at a pivotal time for the Japanese-American community in Little Tokyo. The purpose of the party thrown in his honor was to commemorate the end of Anzen’s tenure at 309 E. 1st Street, the main historic stretch of Little Tokyo, which will soon see the departure of another legacy business, Suehiro Cafe. The block could soon look and feel very different, with community members anxious about which businesses will replace the old ones.
It’s not all bad news though. After a couple deals to buy Anzen fell through, Takatani sold the business to the Hirose family, who own a building down the street. Jo Ann Maehara Hirose’s father, Tsutomu Maehara, was Anzen’s original owner, back in 1946 when he started Anzen Hotel Supply, and supplied many Japanese-owned single room occupancy hotels with items like toilet paper and linens from his family’s building on 1st Street and Weller Street (now Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street).
Jo Ann Maehara Hirose remembers helping out at Anzen as a child, sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store, as well as ringing up sales and gift-wrapping items, especially around Christmas.
The Hiroses plan to reopen Anzen in the building they still own. The hardware store will share space with the building’s existing flower shop on the first floor. Jo Ann now runs Azay, a popular Japanese and French restaurant, with her husband Chef Akira Hirose and son Philip next door. They also operate an SRO on the second floor — which are one of LA’s few remaining sources of affordable housing. But Jo Ann has mixed feelings about Anzen coming back.
“Anzen’s going to go back to where I used to run up and down the street,” she said. “It’s back to familiar territory. I mean, of course, First Street North was, it was here, what, twenty-plus years. So it will be sad because it’s a small space … it will leave a void in this block.”
When Anzen announced Nori Takatani’s retirement on Instagram, the post also said that Anzen would remain in the family, because Takatani is actually a distant relative of the Hiroses. Philip Hirose said the celebration was an opportunity for the community to properly mourn this change.
“I wanted to take the opportunity to allow like the community at large to process that closure as well in relation to the space and the store because I feel like in many ways especially with … specifically Japanese national-owned shops, in which the people get up to a certain age, there isn’t any of that time given to others to process a closure. Usually it’s like a piece of paper on a window saying, ‘Thank you for all your support throughout the years. We are closing, or we are closed.’
“So I wanted to end it with a celebration, in that it’s Nori’s retirement, knowing that it’s going to be bittersweet because the space has been so meaningful to us.”
And when the store reopens, Philip is hoping that it will be a community endeavor.
“A lot of people have already pitched ideas of things that we can do, should do, or things that they would like to see. And I think that we’re going to lead with that spirit because we know that the store is the community’s and not just ours.”