Commerce and comity: Remembering when Woodies was where Washington shopped

John Kelly
Columnist April 21

Like veterans of a noble cause — a battle or an expedition — former employees of Woodward & Lothrop came forward to share their memories after my recent column on the now-shuttered department store. Customers did, too.

The first job that Bethesda’s Rosalyn Levy Jonas had as a student was as a Woodies secret shopper. “From 1963 to 1965 I was paid 70 cents for each report I filed about purchases and returns I made at the stores,” she wrote. “The report form asked how I was greeted (‘May I help you?’ not ‘Can I help you?’), whether the salesperson was chewing gum, and other questions.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Alexandria’s Julia Krebs worked for Woodies from 1971 until it closed in 1995, putting in time at Seven Corners, the buying offices at Metro Center, Landmark and Fair Oaks, and then traveling to all the stores as a training coordinator working with the Elizabeth Arden beauty consultants.

It was a different era when she started. “I had a store manager once tell me while giving me my review that ‘The male managers will receive larger raises as they have families to support,’” Julia wrote. “Ah, the inequities of the ’70s!”

Still, she has a fondness for Woodies. “I swept the floor after the doors at Landmark were locked by the liquidators, while shedding many tears,” Julia wrote. “Those of us who stayed to the bitter end, stayed for two reasons: because we felt a passion to do so and to get our severance packages.”

Mary Louise Faunce said hers was a Woodies family. Her mother worked in what was called “telephone selling.” Her Aunt Evelyn was a buyer, an exalted position. “Our neighbor growing up, Mr. Clark, decorated the Christmas windows,” Mary Louise wrote. “We would take my Dad’s streetcar downtown to shop when F Street was at the top of its game. For a Washington kid growing up in the city, it was as glamorous as a trip to New York City.”

Rosemary Lyon of Bethesda remembers Woodward & Lothrop’s Secret Santa Shop.

“Small children could go into a separate room in the 11th and G Street store to buy, on their own, small Christmas gifts for friends and families,” she wrote. “A one-way window permitted parents to view the scene. The children loved making the purchases, and the parents enjoyed seeing them on their first shopping expeditions.  . . . My ‘kids’ are now 40 and 43, but they still have fond memories of Woodies at Christmastime.”

Geraldine Zarbo attended a Catholic girls’ school in the District in the 1950s. Woodies was the main after-school destination at this time of year.

“I’m sure we were the bane of the sales force with all our squealing and carrying on,” she wrote. “But the really remarkable thing, in that more innocent time, was how I made my purchases. My mother had a charge account at Woodies, and she had put my name on the account. When I wanted to buy something, even though I did not have the charge card, the clerk would phone someone in an office and ask if I was indeed on the account and then just ring up my purchase. I always signed my mother’s name. Isn’t that amazing?

Edward Tabor pointed out that Woodies may be gone, but there’s an important reminder of the family in Bethesda. Edward wrote: “The daughter of the Woodward and Lothrop founder Samuel Walter Woodward, Helen Wilson, and her husband, Luke I. Wilson, donated land for what became the National Institutes of Health from parcels of their estate along Rockville Pike, in a series of gifts beginning in 1935. They were determined to do something significant to help their fellow citizens by donating the land. She continued to live in a house in a small enclave surrounded by NIH until the early 1960s. One might say, NIH exists today on land that came from profits from Woodward and Lothrop.”

Claire Tieder of Charlottesville lamented that these days, “no matter what store one goes in, or in what state, merchandise is boringly the same.”

That wasn’t the case when Washington’s department stores were at their peak, each one carving out a different niche. “I pounded the pavement of F Street college summers looking for work at Jelleff’s, Lansburgh’s, Woodies and Garfinckel’s,” Claire wrote. “I thought it was better to work downtown rather than in the suburban stores. How snobbish of me.”

Claire worked two summers at Garfinckel’s. It was where she touched her first Chanel bag.

“To this day I can remember certain special outfits, gifts for others and special items purchased at these stores,” Claire wrote. “But, more than anything, I remember the connections to family and friends that these special stores evoke.”

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