A man with a red crew cut browsing the back row at Hammer & Nails Ace Hardware spots Bill Walby in Aisle 2. He runs toward and tackles the assistant manager. They wrestle, knocking a pair of Ace work gloves off the endcap.
“There he is!” the man says as their grappling becomes hugging and they pick themselves off the tile floor.
This isn’t Walby’s high-school buddy or brother, but an apartment maintenance manager he sells drywall to.
That’s who Bill Walby is to his customers. And why it’s so devastating to them that he’s retiring at age 65. Walby and his wife are moving to the mountains of Idyllwild, Calif. His last day at Hammer & Nails is Saturday, March 2.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do without him,” says the man with the red crew cut while waiting to check out. “It’s going to suck.”
Assistant manager is Walby’s title but really, he’s a home-improvement yoda, taking on each customer’s problem as his own until he and customer and the problem are one.
Or something like that.
“Bill is so genuine,” says Bill Meanley, who owns Hammer & Nails and is the older brother of Bob Meanley of La Jolla’s Meanley & Son Ace Hardware. “He sings and whistles his way through his workday. And there’s nothing labored about his wanting to help people. He’ll take as long as it takes with someone to see their project through to completion.”
Clearly, Walby wouldn’t have lasted long at a big-box hardware store.
“That’s funny,” Walby says, “I actually I applied to Home Depot before I did here. They decided they had no use for me.”
Meanley is throwing Walby a retirement send-off on his last day. Many of the thousands of locals assisted by Walby over the years will be there. That includes Marie, a woman embroiled in a three-year remodel of her parents’ Bird Rock home that ended in 2000.
“When she told me she was done with her project, I said, ‘Let’s go out and celebrate,’” Walby recalls.
Less than a year later, they were married.
“I was attracted to her the minute she walked into the door,” Walby says, “but you know, you have to keep things professional in the store.”
From hard rock to hardware
Managing a hardware store wasn’t Walby’s dream gig; he just made it that. For most of his youth, Walby sang lead in heavy-metal bands. A 1989 song recorded by Bad Penny (his most notable) can be found on YouTube and is reminiscent of early Van Halen. (Search “Down For the Count.”)
“We toured the clubs around D.C. and the Mid-Atlantic area,” Walby said. “We opened for Pat Travers once. That was pretty cool. But after a few years, I realized that wasn’t going to go any further.”
In 1993, Walby moved to San Diego, where his brother was living and put him up for a while. Walby waited on tables at World Famous Restaurant Pacific Beach, then drove for Windansea Towing, then applied at Hammer & Nails.
“I’m gonna miss this store,” Walby says. “I probably don’t even know how much I’m going to miss it yet. It’s really been a way of life. People who work here and people who shop here, they’re my friends.”
IF YOU GO: Walby’s retirement party will take place 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 2 at Hammer & Nails Ace Hardware, 890 Turquoise St. Refreshments will be served and the public is welcome.