Randy Martinez was seven years old when his father opened the Safeway Hardware Store on 998 Bedford Avenue.
That was September 1988, and at the time, Randy recalls, Bedford Avenue was desolate. In fact, aside from a bank, Safeway was the only business down Bedford for blocks in both directions.
"I've been coming to this store since I was about ten years old to help my father," said Martinez. "My father learned the business through his brother-in-law. But from the beginning, I was always around."
Today, Randy -- or "Handy Randy," as he's called -- pretty much single-handedly runs the store, along with his sidekick, a cat, named Fidel Castro. Randy says he can fix just about anything. He's become a master at figuring out how to make other people's lives easier.
"You need lots of patience when you work in a hardware store, because you have to be ready and willing to fix everyone's problem," he said. "I have customers come in all the time, and they'll be holding something that no one's ever seen before, and say, 'I need the piece that this goes into.'
"Or I get a lot of people who don't even speak English. They will come in and start sounding things out, pointing to things," said Randy and starts to playfully act out scenarios.
"So I'll just start grabbing things and say, 'Screwdriver? Tape?' And they'll be, like, shaking their head 'No, that's not it.' But this can go on and on until eventually you find it. So you have to be patient."
Safeway sells everything you'd expect in a hardware store: contractor's solvent, stain brushes, nails, construction tape, plumbing and electrical products, mothballs, light bulbs. You name it, they've got it. There are at least 1,000 different products lining every inch of every wall, in a presentation as colorful as a candy store.
But Randy says their bread-and-butter as far as business is locks and keys. Safeway makes keys, installs locks, breaks locks, restores locks. They also do Marshall calls when people get evicted-- probably the only time when Randy isn't making someone's life easier…
He tells the story of one time during a Marshall call, they were forcing the door open to install a Marshall's lock: "And as soon as we pushed the door open, we were staring at two huge Rottweilers," said Randy. "And what's crazy is, they didn't make a peep until we opened the door, then they started growling! We closed it real quick. That was pretty scary."
Randy says, outside of the hardware business, he pretty much stays to himself or spends time with his lady. He likes to practice magic, or watch the history channel or the sports channel or shows about aliens. "I'm a conspiracy nut, so…" he laughed.
Randy has seen a lot about Bed-Stuy change right before his eyes. He said, back in the day, when the avenue was a lot more desolate (and dangerous), the store would close up shop by the time the sun set. Today, he feels comfortable staying open as late as he'd like, in order to make a little extra money.
But even as the neighborhood has changed and life for his business has become safer, he is quick to point out that not everything about the changes have been a cakewalk.
"For the longest time, we were one of the only businesses in the neighborhood, and we had a lot of faithful customers. But many of our faithful customers moved out the neighborhood because the rents got too high.
"Now the new people who move in, they usually head right to Home Depot. But I think those customers who started at Home Depot are beginning to realize that the big-chain products are not always cheaper than the smaller stores.
"Business is starting to pick back up. They knocked us out for a minute. But, we're on our way back," said Randy smiling wide. "And we're healing."
Then, Randy reached over to scratch Fidel Castro's back.