Long before he became a cherished figure in Mission Hill, Andres Cruz was working in a family-owned market in Uphams Corner when he was attacked by another man. Cruz chased the man onto the street, stabbed him, and killed him, court records show.
On Tuesday, more than 30 years after that violent encounter, Cruz used a knife again in a struggle with three men who tried to rob his shop, AC Hardware on Tremont Street, police said. He slashed one man across the arm, and the other on the thumb, but was fatally shot. The men, who were quickly apprehended, had stolen $700.
The hard-working 58-year-old father had overcome troubles and tragedies to become a beloved neighborhood business owner — a warm and welcoming throwback to a time before Home Depot and Amazon Prime.
In Cruz’s tiny basement shop, crammed with paintbrushes, keys, locks, and tools, he kept a notebook with the names of customers who had bought items on credit, said state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, a longtime Mission Hill resident. If a neighbor needed a hammer that cost $10 and had only $5, Cruz would tell the customer to pay him the rest later, Sanchez said.
Others said Cruz would water the pink flowers in the planter on the sidewalk and was quick to help anyone. One neighbor, a 23-year-old woman who lives in the third-floor apartment above AC Hardware, said Cruz helped her install screens in her windows on Saturday.
Just last month, Cruz beamed as he stood with Mayor Martin J. Walsh and accepted a framed certificate for turning AC Hardware into the Mission Hill “Business of the Year.” Banners with the proclamation, bearing Cruz’s photo, hang from poles near the shop.
“He’s the last of a bygone era,” Sanchez said Wednesday. “He was the real deal.”
Cruz’s life was also marked by heartache and pain. He left Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, when he was in his 20s, after his mother, father, and pregnant sister were killed in a fiery car crash, said Jorge Martinez, a former brother-in-law.
In Boston, Cruz found a fresh start, working in family-owned grocery stores, fish markets, and other businesses throughout the city.
But he also ran into trouble. After he stabbed and killed a man who had attacked him with a milk crate at Hermanos Unidos, a family-owned store in Uphams Corner, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 1985 and was sentenced to five years of probation, court records show.
In the 1980s, he bought the hardware store, realizing his dream of owning his own business, and dedicated himself to building the shop into a community clearinghouse for home-repair tips and tools. After rising at 6 a.m. to walk his chihuahua, Mimi, by his home near Egleston Square, he worked long hours at the shop, seven days a week, neighbors said.
“He’d say, ‘If you need anything, this is my store,’ ” said Aracelis Acosta, who is 29 and lives in Mission Hill. “He didn’t have to know you from a hole in the wall, but he wanted to help.”
About 13 years ago, Cruz, who had two adult children from a previous relationship, married Rosita Cruz, said Angel Martinez, a nephew.
A few years later, in 2010, Rosita Cruz was working inside Hermanos Unidos, on Dudley Street, when her uncle, 71-year-old Geraldo Serrano, was shot and killed during an armed robbery. Rosita Cruz was traumatized by the killing, but testified at the killer’s murder trial, Angel Martinez said.
And now, he said, Rosita Cruz is facing tragedy again. She was on vacation in Puerto Rico when her husband was killed, and she was rushing back to Boston on Wednesday, he said.
“It’s just devastating,” Angel Martinez said, fighting tears. “It’s shocking, I have no words.”
Jorge Martinez was incensed by the killing of his former brother-in-law.
“It’s family, a human, and for what?” he said. “A couple hundred bucks?”
On Wednesday, a memorial to Cruz was growing on the sidewalk outside AC Hardware.
Neighbors had left a Puerto Rican flag, paintbrushes, a row of candles, and several bouquets of flowers. One woman wept as she carefully left a newspaper clipping of Cruz accepting his “Business of the Year” certificate from the mayor.
Katelyn Hurley, the neighbor who got Cruz’s help with her window screens, said Cruz welcomed her as soon as she moved into her apartment above his shop three years ago. The other morning, they sat together on the stoop and talked while she waited for an Uber ride, she said.
“It was a huge shock . . . such a brutal, senseless crime,” she said. “Three guys against an old man? It’s devastating.”
Acosta was also grieving. “We lost someone in our community who’s always there for people,” she said. “It breaks my heart.”