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Walnut Creek Vacuum: Same Place, Same Owners Since 1950

Customers tell owner Tom Heath not to change a thing inside the store the family has owned for three generations

Tom and Janeen Heath inside Walnut Creek Vacuum
Tom and Janeen Heath inside Walnut Creek Vacuum
Tom Heath's favorite vacuum in Walnut Creek Vacuum is one he can't sell.

It's an old blue Hoover vacuum that a man in his 90s brought in a few years ago.

The man said he bought the vacuum in the shop in 1956. It still worked. It was just too heavy now for him to push.

Heath looked on the bottom of the vacuum and saw by his initials that he had repaired the appliance in 1975.

Heath keeps the old blue vacuum, along with other older models, on a shelf above the cash registers at the store his family has owned for three generations.

It's a reminder of the longevity and consistency of Walnut Creek Vacuum, which has been at 1960 Mt. Diablo Blvd. for 64 years now.

"I love this business. It's what I've done all my life. It's what I know," said Heath.

The business was founded by Heath's grandfather, Jerry Heath.

The family patriarch decided to move to California in the early 1940s, so he rode his motorcycle from Arkansas to the Bay Area.

He worked for Hoover Vacuum for awhile before deciding to open his own place.

In 1950, he and his wife, Vallye, set up Walnut Creek Vacuum where it now sits on Mt. Diablo Boulevard west of California Boulevard.

Tom Heath said his grandfather was the official owner, but his grandmother was really the boss.

That was proven in 1962 when auto executive Bob Lutz was a student at U.C. Berkeley and worked as a sales associate at Walnut Creek Vacuum.

For whatever reason, Vallye Heath didn't like Lutz's style, so she fired him.

There apparently aren't any hard feelings. There's a signed photo from Lutz from a few years ago hanging inside the vacuum shop.

Heath's grandparents ran the shop until the 1970s when Heath's father, John, took over.

When Heath's parents divorced, his mother, Lee, took over operations until she retired five years ago.

That's when Tom Heath took over the business.

He and his brother, Mark, worked in the shop as kids. Tom Heath swept floors when he was 11. When he got a license to ride a motorcycle at 15 1/2, Heath started to deliver parts to and from the store.

The Las Lomas High School alum said he was first drawn to the business because it was a good way for a teenager to earn money. He had enough, in fact, to buy a new motorcycle that was the envy of many a fellow classmate.

"All through high school, I had money," Heath remembered.

After high school, Heath didn't go to college. He continued to work in the shop, alongside his grandparents and parents.

After his mother retired, it seemed natural for Heath to step in as the store manager.

"I always thought this would be my business some day," he said.

Heath's wife, Janeen, also works there, overseeing the books. She admits her favorite part is the fact she can choose when she works.

"I come and go as I please," she said.

Over the years, Walnut Creek Vacuum has changed little.

There is a section now where Heath and his employees repair pump motors. That was started by Jerry Heath, who apparently could fix anything.

Today, that part of the shop focuses on well pumps as well as sump pumps and heating and air conditioning pumps.

However, the primary business is still selling and repairing vacuums. The prices and variety vary, but they tend to be sturdier, higher end models.

The decor in the shop still has a 1950s motif. The sign outside has been there for decades. There's a comfort level for many patrons.

"Our customers come in and tell us don't change a thing," said Heath.

Heath said one reason for the shop's success is it's close to downtown but isn't in the thick of the busy roads there. That means there is usually on-street parking out front.

Heath says his shop also focuses on treating its customers right.

"That is something my grandfather taught me. Customer service is number one," said Heath.

Heath even rides a motorcycle to work. Just like his grandfather.

H Hudson January 27, 2014 at 12:35 PM
His customers say 'don't change a thing'......wholly agree! So sick of fighting traffic/parking in downtown. WC has enough 'slick' stores. This is a small business where there is service and you get straight answers, not 'policies' or employees that can't make decisions. Even the funky paneling is great. But I expect it doesn't fit the city fathers' idea of 'upscale' and 'toney', 'destination' shopping. Good for WC Vacuum !
WC Native January 27, 2014 at 03:07 PM
Walnut Creek Vacuum is the best. For a number of years, I would buy a new vacuum from Costco, use it for a few years, it would break, I would replace. They were fancy, expensive and very poorly made - plus, all of the bells and whistles they offered weren't things we even needed. I was so fed up, I decided to try something different. I went to Walnut Creek Vacuum and bought a simple, upright model that looked like the vacuum we'd had when I was a child. We've had it for many years and it is fantastic. What they are doing to down town is terrible and I hope WC Vacuum can stay right where they are for many generations to come. Remember to patronize our small, local businesses!!
Sadie Berkhimer January 27, 2014 at 09:06 PM
Nice to see a part of the REAL Walnut Creek highlighted. Sure hope they are able to stay where they are as it is so convenient and the owners are great folks. Thank you Walnut Creek Vacuum for being there when we need you.

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