Frager’s: a home on the Hill

Capitol Hill residents woke up Thursday morning to a destroyed Frager’s Hardware Store. Locals gathered around the blazing fire to witness the end of a historic piece of D.C. (Courtesy of WJLA)

As I sit here in my kitchen at midnight, a block and a half from the still-smoldering mess that was Frager’s, I see a family in a clearly unhealthy, dependent relationship with a hardware store.

There are the magnetized strips, still in their plastic bags, we ran out to get at Frager’s this weekend so we could finally close our kitchen cabinets with something more mature than Scotch tape. There are the gardening loppers we bought there a few years ago and used a few days ago while weeding to plant the vegetable seeds we got at, um, yes, Frager’s. There’s the empty space we cleared away in the living room for an upcoming class for our 4-year-old and some pals, the entire event relying upon the peanut-sized table and chairs we’d rent from Frager’s.

You get the point.

We on Capitol Hill need Frager’s; we can’t go a weekend without a fix (or a full-on bender). For this bustling little anthill of transient go-getters, people who came to Washington to change the world, Frager’s is an essential part of keeping us ants functioning. We were there in that line that snaked through the lighting department, along with contractors and longtime Hill residents

Its family-like staff and maze of aisles and insane array of services made it possible in one short walk on a sunny Saturday to fix your toilet seat, chat with your city council member, and pick up some enormous helium balloons for a block party. Frager’s was quirky — boy was it quirky — but it made this grid of rowhouses between the U.S. Capitol and the Anacostia River into a town. A town that worked.

Frager’s centrality to our lives was so clear that when my mother-in-law bought my baby son a stuffed tiger to use when he visited her in Long Island, something to remind him of home, she named it Frager. And in turn, when her birthday came and we wanted to get her something special from the Hill, we bought her one of Frager’s iconic navy and orange T-shirts.

The word “Frager’s” embodies all that is good and neighborhoody about our ’hood.

The garden shop would let you borrow a wheelbarrow or dolly to walk plants and big mulch or soil bags back to your house. Or if you had something too heavy to move yourself, their staff would help you carry it home, since so many customers lived in walking distance. Frager’s staff shared the walk down 11th and then G several times to help us bring home rented tables or chairs.

If your house was robbed, as is common on the Hill, they could change your locks. If you needed someone to help you move a piece of furniture, you could call Frager’s and someone would literally pop by for 15 minutes. If you wanted to attempt a home improvement project they were always happy to help, so long you understood everyone involved in the transaction might need a little improvement.

I couldn’t believe it when I first went into Frager’s basement; the entire floor looked like a flea market. Total chaos, nothing stacked properly or marked. Piles everywhere. Except that any time that a staffer needed something down there, they found it in less than a minute.

In truth, Frager’s wasn’t a perfect business. The last time I bought a lightbulb, the staff lady told me she was guessing and it turned out she was wrong (and the new bulb was already out when I got home). A month or so ago they cut a piece of glass wrong twice before getting it right. But they did it, nicely and no extra charge.

There were times I’d wonder if we Hill people were remaining in some less advanced stage of hardware evolution. If the rest of the region was moving along into the 21st Century with alphabetized shelves and items made of futuristic materials while we on the Hill were being left behind. But I only wondered it in a who-cares, passing kind of way, like people who never join Facebook or get an iPhone and truly, honestly mean it when they say they think they’re better off.

Capitol Hill residents woke up Thursday morning to a destroyed Frager’s Hardware Store. Locals gathered around the blazing fire to witness the end of a historic piece of D.C. (Courtesy of WJLA)

And the design of the place was shocking. You could barely get down the jammed, hoarder-like aisles of the hardware section with a regular sized purse, but somehow we all did, and did so constantly. Because we loved it in there. We loved the eccentric staff and the wall of keychains and 50 kinds of herbs and the rental section where you could borrow anything from a chainsaw to a cotton-candy maker, a blower for leaves to a bouncy castle.

Did I mention they had free coffee in the rental section? Bad coffee?

Over Memorial Day weekend I went for a run to the Mall, and as soon as I passed the Capitol — about a mile west of Frager’s — I was stunned to come over the hill and see tens of thousands of people milling around waiting for a holiday concert to start, setting up blankets and snapping photos on the steps and generally feeling they were experiencing the epitome of Washington life. But back on the other side of the Capitol, where none of them were looking, was the little anthill of my neighborhood, doing its usual weekend routine of hitting the coffee shop, the grocery store and, of course, Frager’s.

As I ran back I had stopped there, as I often do on the weekend, and I remember thinking of the movie “A Bug’s Life,” centered on this little colony on an island no one ever spots. And it seemed to me Capitol Hill was like that, and maybe many Washington neighborhoods, just regular little life going on there that no one sees because they’re so busy noticing Congressional testimony and White House press conferences.

And Frager’s seemed to me the heart of the anthill because it’s where all us transient ants come to seek tools to make our little patch of earth into a home.

As my 4-year-old watched the firefighters tonight, he asked: Where are we going to get our plants? I wasn’t sure what to tell him.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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