If you arrive at Anawalt Lumber early on a Friday morning, you are likely to see general manager Basil Alexander, 50, making sure his customers enjoy free donuts and coffee. If they’ve run out, he will tell you: “Well, don’t get here after ten.” (Note: Anawalt opens at 6:30 a.m.)
Alexander has been with Anawalt for 10 years and in the lumber/hardware business since he was a wee tyke of 22. “Went by fast, man,” Alexander said to me as we stand in the middle of the nursery section. “It’s like Noah’s Ark. We got two of everything,” he said, referring to the plants around us. Woe to the customer who needs more. “This guy said he needs nine. I’m, like, I gotta order those for you.”
And before you think your commute is tough, Alexander travels every day from Placentia, a suburban city in north Orange County “two minutes from Cal State Fullerton.” “It’s not busy or crazy over there. Plus, I can’t afford this area,” he said (meaning WeHo). “Real estate is outrageous.”
It may surprise you to learn that only 20% of Anawalt’s WeHo customer base is the general consumer, average homeowner or renter. “There is a lot of affluence here. Not too many people do their own gardening, housekeeping or maintenance,” Alexander said. “So there are a lot of handymen and contractors.”
A whopping 80%, which explains the long line of trucks and vans constantly filling their narrow, serpentine parking lot, bisecting the property from the Robertson Boulevard entrance to the exit on La Peer Drive. “We have a guard who uses a whistle like a lifeguard,” Alexander said, to manage the flow of vehicles.
It also explains their best-selling item. “We sell a lot of concrete,” Alexander said. “The big trucks can’t get in the hills. We’re able to deliver up in the tight streets.”
I asked Alexander what one of their weirdest products is. “Some of the unique stuff we recently got are beneficial insects,” he said. “Praying mantis and things like that are good for the environment. You’re not using pesticides.”
Anawalt is keen on environmentally friendly products. Dave Anawalt, one of the owners, “is a big surfer involved with Heal the Bay,” an environmental group working on cleaning Santa Monica Bay, Alexander said. “So we got rid of some products in our nursery that were affecting bees.” And he said, “All our lumber is certified regenerated forest products.”
Some West Hollywood residents may wonder how Koontz Hardware, the retail institution around the corner on Santa Monica Blvd., and Anawalt compete. “It’s not a competition,” Alexander said. “They’re more housewares.” With an attitude of what struck me as true generosity he added, “They serve a niche, and we serve a niche. There’s plenty of pie to share for everybody to be happy.”
Any idea how large Anawalt’s lot is? “According to my customers it’s too small,” Alexander said with a smile. He would love to have more space, but “the city…I think there’s a big plan for this area” and Alexander isn’t convinced Anawalt is “part of the plan because…boutique hotels, you know, fancy restaurants.”
His contractors tell him, “God help us if you guys go away.” Alexander acknowledges their concern with a nod of his head. “Because the nearest place is Depot or Lowe’s,” he said. “And you know” he added, looking directly at me, “by living around here, sometimes two blocks takes you ten minutes to travel.”
Anawalt Lumber is a family-owned business, a point Alexander mentioned several times. “We try to run the store as a family,” he said. “Our motto is serving others like we want to be served ourselves.” The company backs that up by providing healthcare and 401(k) benefits for their employees.
Community involvement, both commercial and charitable, ranks high on the company’s priority list. “We’re a member of the WeHo Chamber of Commerce,” Alexander said. “Fred Anawalt is on the board,” referring to another co-owner of the company.
Anawalt’s good deeds include “National Night Out, which keeps people in the neighborhood involved in terms of security,” Alexander said. “We donate to that. Whatever is a worthy cause.” Local schools such as WeHo Elementary and a disabled veterans organization doing gardening also have been beneficiaries. “Not everything has to be about profit.”
Like for so many businesses, exceptional customer service is the goal. It seems to be what motivates Alexander. “Helping a project get done and having the customer thank you that it turned out well,” he told me is what makes his day. “That their problem is solved.”
The model works; Anawalt is going on 70 years in business (there are four locations in LA). “I think that’s one of the reasons the store is successful. We have a lot of people who’ve been here a long time, who know the product, who know the store.” Alexander jokes, “The gentleman inside cashiering, we tease him that’s he’s been here since the store opened in 1948.”
Alexander feels working and shopping at Anawalt is like being in a small town in a big city. “We have relationships with a lot of the customers. We know them by name.”
And some customers’ animal companions’ names, too, no doubt. “We are pet friendly,” Alexander said. “We have one guy who has a cat on a leash. They’ll come in with their dogs and [say], ‘I can’t take everything with me right now, I’ll be back.’”