Six months after fire, Frager’s is back with a Christmas tradition on Capitol Hill


Amy Garrett, far right, looks on as her daughter, Audrey Weland, 5, and her friend, Corinne Cernich, 4, play on their newly bought Christmas tree at the still-closed location in Southeast Washington. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
December 7, 2013

Frager’s is selling Christmas trees. That’s not new; the Capitol Hill hardware store has been a beloved purveyor of holiday cheer — along with light bulbs, bolts and duct tape — for decades. But this season, six months after fire gutted the 93-year-old store, the neighborhood is treating the return of the trees as a minor Christmas miracle.

“I just didn’t think there was any way,” said Julie Sutton, 32, happy and harried Saturday as she chased one of her two toddlers around the store’s tree-filled side lot on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. “Then we saw someone loading one onto their car, and we did a U-turn and stopped.”

She had to speak over the roar of a temporary generator. The adjacent storefront was still boarded up, bricks greasy with soot, the “True Value” sign still molten and forlorn. But for many flocking to the old site, the rows of Fraser firs and white pines were hopeful shoots of green amid the blackened ruins, a sign that Frager’s was going to make it.

The trees were making some people sappy.

“I really kind of teared up when I saw they had them,” said Sadie Harris, a former day-care teacher who has been buying trees and Christmas decorations at Frager’s since her own children were small.

Many pulling up to have trees tied to their vehicle tops — from SUVs to Mini Coopers — were members of Capitol Hill’s expansive band of Frager Neighbors. They consider the store as much a cultural institution as a retail venue, a local fixture selling fixtures. Throughout the years, the creaky floors and groaning shelves provided not just the spare parts of householding but also a clearinghouse of local gossip and clerks who remembered your face if not your name.

“We come two or three times a week — or we did,” said Amy Garrett, who lives a few blocks away. Her husband, Rob Weland, would carry their tree home on his shoulder, as usual, although last year’s was so big the store lent them a pushcart for the job.

They won’t buy trees anywhere else, and Garrett reckons they have spent nearly $1,000 on Frager trees over the past nine Decembers.

Like their neighbors, they were horrified by the June 5 blaze that all but destroyed the store, a piecemeal edifice of storefronts covering nearly the entire block. As Frager’s has made lurching steps to recovery — opening a temporary pop-up site next to Eastern Market and operating in scattered vacant shops around the neighborhood — they have made an effort to stay loyal. That might mean one stop to buy a Frager’s picture hanger in one place and another to buy a Frager’s flower­pot in another.

“I haven’t been to Home Depot yet,” Garrett said proudly. “That’s my goal.”

The tree sales, too, are a scattered affair. Customers pay for them at the paint store on the corner. And smaller trees are displayed at the Eastern Market location, along with the ornaments and holiday accouterments that veterans knew to look for in aisles nine and 10 of the old store.

None of the extra steps seemed to bother the customers who are waiting for Frager’s to fully dust itself off.

“It’s a little harder, but we’re committed to Frager’s recovery,” Weland said. He just hopes the future Frager’s wont be too updated. “I’m going to miss the wood floors.”

Christmas, and a hoped-for boost in sales at the end of what has been an epically awful year, can’t come soon enough for Frager’s owner and managers. Their devoted customer base has been a godsend, owner John Weintraub said. But pulling a nearly hundred-year-old business from the ashes has been grueling.

“It’s been very painful,” Weintraub said. “We’ve had to constantly innovate and do everything from scratch. Most of everything we had was lost.”

It took more than 200 firefighters more than five hours to control the blaze, which investigators said probably ignited after an employee dropped a cigarette butt into a bucket in an alley.

The first good news came when Frager’s computer techs were able to rescue billing records and more than $100,000 of accounts receivable from damaged hard drives.

Within weeks, supporters had raised more than $130,000 to help displaced employees and tenants. Frager’s set up shop in several tents in a lot near Eastern Market, a sort of retail refugee camp.

In November, it moved some inventory into a remodeled body shop on E Street SE.

By spring, the owners plan to have consolidated most of the business into a 20,000-square-foot temporary structure a block from the original building.

Weintraub hopes to restore the old Frager’s within the next two years, but the path to full recovery remains uncertain. Engineers are still evaluating its structural soundness. The basement had to be cleaned of a toxic brew of melted garden chemicals and cleaning fluids.

“It was a tough mess,” he said.

Customers who came tree shopping took time to commiserate with Frager’s employees, whom many hadn’t seen since last year’s crop of Christmas trees.

“They’ve been asking us since October if we were going to have trees this year,” said Mathew Lovelace, a garden shop manager. “We told them we’re trying not to skip a beat.”

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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