HISTORY IN PERSPECTIVE | Working-class QA: Five Corners Hardware is 75 and still going strong

Five Corners Hardware, Marilyn Monroe, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and your author all share a June 1 birthday. The hardware store is planning a 75th birthday party of its June 1, 1940, opening on Saturday, June 27, and Sunday, June 28, with cake, savings and great hoopla for the whole neighborhood.

Open every day of the week at the five corners of Third Avenue West, West McGraw and West McGraw Place, it is surely one of few Seattle businesses still operated by the same family after 75 years.

The Queen Anne Historical Society’s book “Queen Anne: Community on the Hill” erroneously notes (Page 163) that “Uncle Sam Jr.” began business here with $500 in insurance money. According to family lore, Sam only collected $200 for losing a finger in an on-the-job accident during an epileptic seizure when he lost control of his saw. It turns out Sam’s employer was his dad, building contractor Samuel F. Jensen Sr. It must have been workers‘ compensation that paid the money, but it was enough to go into business at the five corners.

“Queen Anne: Community on the Hill” makes no mention of Sam’s epilepsy, the saw or his finger. It also got the meager sum wrong.

With the slowdown of the construction business during World War II, Sam Sr. went to work with his son. After the war, Sam Jr.’s brother, John, became the third person in the family working at the store. Another son, Gordon, never worked there, but he did own the building. Gordon was a driver for bakeries and later became a leader in the local Teamsters union.

It is important to the story of this family business that Samuel F. Jensen Sr., the patriarch, and his wife, Marie, had five children, three sons (Sam, John and Gordon, who I’ve already noted) and two daughters, Violet and Mary Ellen.

One night toward the end of the World War II, probably in 1945, one of the Jensen sons invited his buddy Jim Forkey home for dinner with the family. Jim and the Jensen boy were stationed together at Fort Lewis. Forkey was a Spokane native who had trained at the Art Institute in Chicago.

As a newsletter posted in the store recounts, after dinner on that fated day, Jim espied Violet Jensen. They married in 1946 and eventually had daughters Janice and Jean. In 1961, Jim bought the store and ran it until his retirement on June 1, 1985, the 35th anniversary of the store’s opening.

On that day, Violet and Jim’s daughter, Jean Forkey Shook, bought the business from her father. A bit later in 1987, Jean inherited the building from her Uncle Gordon. 

Jean ran the day-to-day business until 2005, while her husband, Larry Shook, who never sets foot in the door, managed the finances. In 2005, Jean passed ownership to her son, Brian, who is in charge today.

A different look

When the building first went up in 1910 and as late as 1940, when the store first opened, it sported a brick veneer over a wooden frame. In 1983, vinyl siding hid the building’s brick veneer, and aluminum windows replaced the historic wooden windows. (The city issued a permit for the work on Sept. 9, 1983, and a Certificate of Occupancy later that year).

Not unlike many Seattle two-story commercial buildings of the time, the ground-floor retail space wraps around a central, single-run staircase that reaches up from the street to service four second-story apartments. When the building was constructed, there was a store on both sides of the stair.

In 1940, Samuel F. Jensen Jr. bought the building from Stella E. Herren and Joseph A. Meyer, who operated two separate stores there. According to the 1940 Polk’s Seattle City Directory (Page 541), the Five Corners Grocery occupied 301 W. McGraw St., while the Five Corners Paint Store filled the space on the west side of the stairs at 305. The next time you pay for your Spackle, paint, light bulbs or garden supplies look up: You’ll see the beam that replaced the dividing wall between the two shops.

From Macrina to Top Pot Doughnuts or the old post office just east of the alley on West Boston Street, there are one- and two-story buildings just like Five Corners Hardware all along the ring of streetcar tracks that once encircled the top of the hill. In fact, the No. 3 line that now terminates at Rodgers Park on West Raye Street used to run in front of the hardware store, turned north on West McGraw Place and end at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. When Seattle Transit took over the streetcar lines in 1940 and replaced them with electric trolleys, they changed the route numbers, extended the No. 2 to the cemetery and terminated the No. 3 at the park. Fortunately for the store’s well-being, it remains on the routes of the Nos. 13 and 29. 

Community lifeblood

The survival of the Five Corners Hardware store is quite amazing in this age of Lowe’s and Home Depot. It proves that DIY is deeply ingrained in the blood of Queen Anne homeowners and that the store meets an important community need.

Thelma Wilkes, a post-WWII Queen Anne Park resident, reports that she and her husband, Vince, had an account at Five Corners Hardware and bought much of the building material there for the house they built in 1950. Like many of early and mid-20th-century Queen Anne residents, the Wilkes were a working-class couple. Vince was a driver for Seattle Transit/Metro, and Thelma worked as an office manager. Thelma lived in the house until 2010, when she sold it and moved to a retirement community. 

The memory of two top-of-the-hill hardware stores by old-time Queen Anne residents such as 75-year-old John Gessner, who grew up on Newton Street and graduated from Queen Anne High School, proves that the neighborhood’s love of just stepping out for a nut, a bolt or utility knife goes deep.

Much as we miss not having two hardware stores on Queen Anne, the Five Corners Hardware store probably does as much as any other local business to win the neighborhood’s outstanding 89 out of 100 walkability score. 

The Queen Anne Historical Society wishes Five Corners Hardware a very happy 75th birthday and many happy returns!

MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (qahistory.org). To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.