As post-World War II exuberance fueled Santa Rosa’s growth — Hugh Codding built homes and Henry Trione loaned mortgage money — Robert “Bob” Harris sold the office machines, furniture and accoutrement that local businesses needed to thrive.
Harris called his King’s Office Supplies and Equipment, which expanded to five stores and 165 employees, “the Friedman’s Hardware of our business, a business person’s shopping center.”
He led the company from 1952 until 2002, when King’s could no longer compete with the big-box chains selling office supplies. He then focused on real estate investment and spent more time traveling and pursuing serious gardening with his wife of 70 years, Shirley. Harris died in Santa Rosa on Nov. 12. He was 98.
One of the returning military veterans who became a Sonoma County entrepreneurial giant, he made his start seven years after the war by purchasing King’s Stationery on Santa Rosa’s Fourth Street. The store had been born in 1893 as Hosmer’s Stationery.
Harris decided early on that there weren’t enough customers walking in the door. So he packed his blue 1953 Dodge van with office supplies and ventured out.
He dropped by all manner of businesses throughout the region, recalling in 1987, “I carried 400 items in my truck, calling on loggers and sawmills and sometimes slept in the truck.” He said that in 1954 he did twice as much business out of his Dodge as out of his store.
He opened a King’s Office Supplies in Ukiah in 1959 and in time expanded into Napa, Fairfield and Rohnert Park. In 1972, he moved the Santa Rosa store into a grand, two-story showplace on Cleveland Avenue at Piner Road.
Harris was born in Bremerton, Washington, in 1918 and was 6 when his family moved to Oakland. With the Great Depression on, he left Fremont High School for a time to work in a peach cannery with his mother. While studying at UC Berkeley he fell in love and eloped, in 1940, with Shirley Mae Hunt.
After the U.S. entered the war, Harris enlisted in the Army, which sent him to its Specialized Training Program at the University of Minnesota. He earned a bachelor’s degree before he was assigned to Europe to resupply troops engaged in the Battle of the Bulge.
Harris returned to the East Bay following the war and in 1947 moved his young family to Santa Rosa, where he went to work in personnel management with Pacific Telephone & Telegraph.
Five years later, he and Shirley bought King’s Office Supplies from Guy King. In 1956, Harris incorporated the business and five years after that sold stock in the enterprise.
He didn’t live only to work. An avid outdoorsman, Harris was introduced by friend Hugh Codding to the glories of trout fishing at Canada’s Tsuniah Lake.
“He loved to take his employees there, early on,” said one of his daughters, Judith Harris-Frisk of Santa Cruz. She said her dad “would risk life and limb to fly into the wilderness” there in British Columbia.
Harris, his wife, their four kids and close friends Bob and Beverly Wallstrum also camped regularly at French Meadows on the Middle Fork of the American River.