Markets re-open in towns hit hard by Valley Fire

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (KTVU) -- In the fire zone, two incredibly important things happened that will help bring normalcy back to southern Lake County. One is that no schools were lost. The other seeming miracle is that the combination grocery and hardware stores -- a pillar of Middletown, Hidden Valley Lake and Cobb -- survived intact.

Hardester's Market and Hardware has served southern Lake County for 72 years, with three stores in all three communities. They are critical not just for their goods and hardware, but for being a place everybody sees everybody on a regular basis.

In short, the stores are part of the fabric of life here.

"Very important. Hardester's supports school functions. Anytime anybody needs anything, they're always donating food, money, you name it. They're always here for us. They really are," said Middletown resident Cynthia Smith.

In this small town, it appears to be a place people really depend on.

"We want to be ready when people come back in town," said third generation co-owner Ross Hardester. He is happy that all of three stores survived the Valley Fire. 

The one in Middletown re-opened right after the fire when PG&E, knowing the importance of the store to those who could stay behind and to first responders, equipped it with a generator.

"PG&E was incredible. We would have lost a lot of product and it would have taken us a long time to get up and running with fresh product like milk. It's hard to get suppliers up here," said Hardester. "Quite a few people stayed behind and they'd come in here and see or refrigeration working and they could get a soda or they could get some chips. It was just like kind of a light went on in their eyes that there's home here. It was kind of a psychological thing."

Employee Rick Wilson says he felt a strong need to resume work.

"It's nice to be back at work just to get going and helping people.  But I haven't seen the house yet," said Wilson. 

His house survived, but Hardester's is his home too.

"This is where everybody meets, where everybody goes to get everything. It's the biggest part of Middletown," said Wilson.

"There's a sense of community and people help themselves and people who live here and are from here they recognize something special about this place," added Hardester.   

At the end of the day, the shop is way more than a grocery store or a hardware store.  It is a beacon of hope right now and, ultimately, a place where everybody knows your name.