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As we’re sitting and talking at the East Oakland house where Julian Villalobos Delgado lives with his sister and more family, Delgado pulls out his phone and shows me a promotional Youtube video Bonanza made several years ago. A generic light-rock soundtrack plays as a Borgesian inventory of tools begin to flash in prosumer wipes and dissolves: workers’ things assembled by type, color, size; bright red and green rakes and hoes; polished ball-peen hammers and mallets; headlights, lamps, mirrors; vintage knickknacks and power-tools in their original packaging; hardhats and helmets; rows of crates full of shiny screws, nuts, bolts, and springs; tables full of gradating sheets of sandpaper; red, orange, yellow, white ropes, cables, winches, pulleys. Even boat anchors. The video goes on for ten minutes and could have gone on longer.
Bonanza, the half-century-old community institution located in the heart of the Fruitvale, was a toy store for handy-persons. Just being there made you want to buy something from every container and bucket—and much of the shop’s attraction was due to Delgado’s knowledge and careful attention to detail.
Sadly, the hardware store is closing. The clothing and camping business across the 36th Avenue, also known as Bonanza, will remain open, but Julian is retiring from his near-quarter century role as the curator of the hardware shop. I spoke to him recently about his life as a fixture at the community hub, how he built the store’s inventory, and his future plans.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have a plaque that Bonanza gave you…
I’ll show it to you right now. A plaque, to mark the years. Did you read what it says there? ‘Thank you for 24 years of service, we wish you the best in 2020, Bonanza Wholesale Distributors Incorporated.’
Where are you from originally?
Tepezala, Aguascalientes. It’s semi-desert.
And what did your family do?
They grew corn, beans, cactus, nopales. We’d farm the earth. My mom was the one who got the plow. The two cows and the plow, and we would go behind her planting, one corn, and two beans. From six, seven, eight years old.
You were working from the day you could walk.
I was raising hell.
Tell me a little about Bonanza.
Totally? I thought they were going to join the two businesses.
Well, they dissolved one. All the tools that were there were given away.
So they’re not going to have a hardware store anymore?
No, the store is empty. The boss [Helen Slape] died in September of last year.
And since then?
That’s where it sort of ended. The boss’ husband [Jack Slape] died ten years ago.
So she was alone doing it, with her children.
And her grandchildren.
Were there a lot of regulars?
Look, son, people came from all over the world. There were Chinese people, Japanese people, Hindus, Spanish, Arabs, from all over the place. Just think about it in those 24 years, who didn’t I meet? They came there to buy, it was a center of attraction because of the unique things there. There were anchors for boats.
I had forgotten how many little things the place had. There were so many items, all types of containers there.
I put all that together.
You did all that?
Twenty four years, it was my idea.
You liked the aesthetic part?
Yes. That was my thing.
And how did you feel to see it close?
I feel sad.
It makes me sad to see that it existed and now doesn’t.
What’s one thing you liked doing more than anything at Bonanza?
I really liked chatting with the customers.
What did they tell you?
[Laughter] everything, just chatting.
You saw a lot of coming and going?
Do you have someone in mind you liked, really liked who came into the place?
My boss, when I would unlock the door for her [in the morning].
You liked seeing her come in, and you miss her, huh?
How long was Bonanza there?
And it was her [Helen]? With her husband? You remember them with love?
With so much love. Look, in my life, I’ve had three mothers. My mother Lorenza; my mother, Helen; and my mother, Alicia. Alicia was the secretary for Helen for many years, the one who did all the paperwork.
And what happened to Alicia?
Well, she died. Well, it’s been a long time now.
So you have relationships with everyone there, like family there?
How did you feel working there?
Who did you see there every day?
For a little while, there were seven of us there.
Because business was good?
Yes, we sold a lot.
There wasn’t a Home Depot back then?
Exactly, we didn’t have the competition.
And when did the Home Depot get there.
I don’t remember. But it wasn’t that big of an effect either, because a lot of people came to us, because we gave customer service there.
Was it more difficult when Home Depot came?
Yeah, but that’s where I’m going to go work.
You’re going to go work at Home Depot?
I’ve put my application in, but right now I’m relaxing.
But you want to keep working?
It could be Home Depot or…Gazzalis. They can put me on a register and I’d do that.
What are some things in your life that you have a lot of pride in?
Being a humble person.
Tell me more.
I don’t have much ambition to achieve power, or get money. I’m happy with what I have.
And what do you have?
For your family?
Jefe, that’s what everyone called me.
And what did Helen call you?
Julian [with an American English “J”].
She didn’t speak Spanish?
She was bilingual. I would speak to her in Spanish, and she’d say ‘English! I don’t understand Spanish.” She was joking, she spoke and wrote Spanish. She was screwing with me.
You got along really well, then?
Helen, my ex-boss, said my name more than any other person in this world.
It’s very hard to have a job for two or three years these days, so it’s hard for some people to understand what it’s like to have a job for 24 years. If you could describe it with one word, what would it be?
Satisfying. And sad, because it doesn’t exist anymore. But everything that begins, ends.
But you left your mark there, it was a big part of the community. You were like an institution there. I’m sure you know everyone in that area.
Yes, and even more.
When you walk by there, all of them say…
And what do you think you’ll do now? And now you want to work? Work more?
How old are you now?
And when will you stop working?
When I die.
Doing what kind of work?
Well, I’d like to work in a hardware store, teaching people how to do things.
You liked that part of the job?
What did you teach?
Electricity, plastering, a lot of things.
Did you watch kids grow up and become adults, and people come and go, from life, from Oakland?
Imagine what you would do in 24 years. I would feel lovely, because you have to teach the babies, the little ones, how to drive a bolt into a nut.
And you saw all those people grow?
Are they still around?
Some of them.
Are there some who were kids and grew up to work in construction or carpentry?
They grew up to do everything. They’re engineers, they’re architects, lawyers, doctors, everything. Imagine, in 24 years, that’s been a lot of living. I’ve lived a really happy life.