Trumped at the Old Post Office: Longtime retail tenants sad they have to leave


Sung Joo Yang, 69, runs Short Stop News, a small space that sells sundries such as candy and cigarettes. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
October 7, 2013

What would Friedrich Drumpf have thought of Gi H. Chung and Sung Joo Yang?

I think he would have seen them as kindred souls, not so unlike himself. Gi and Sung are immigrants. Drumpf was, too. He came to the United States from Germany in 1885, worked as a barber, then sought his fortune in the Klondike, not by panning for gold but by supplying those who did. He became wealthy selling food and lumber. Along the way, he changed his name to Fred Trump.

You’ve heard of his grandson Donald, who will soon take over the building where Gi and Sung work: the Old Post Office Pavilion. That means they won’t be working there much longer. The folks who work in the building’s shops and food court restaurants — as Gi and Sung do — have to be gone by the end of January, when the transformation into a luxury hotel will begin.

“I’m sad,” says Sung, who has run Short Stop News since 1985 and doesn’t know what she’ll do next. “Stay home? That’s no good.”

Sung’s shop is a hodgepodge of retail: candy, cigarettes, cheap sunglasses, mouthwash, batteries, phone cards. You can buy a Whoopie cushion or a switchblade comb. A bowl of fresh bananas sits near the register.

I ask how old she is. Sung thinks for a minute. “In Korea, I am 70. In United States, 69.” She explains that in Korea babies are 1 year old when they are born.

Time to retire, I say.

“There’s a lot of people who like working,” she says.

Gi — 50 and also from Korea — operates two shops and a pushcart in the Old Post Office. Toy Land used to sell primarily toys. City Electronics used to sell memory cards, film, headphones and the like. They both have a similar inventory now: souvenirs. There are Washington mugs, key chains, paper weights, refrigerator magnets, FBI hats. There are bobbleheads of all description, from Barack Obama to, somewhat incongruously, John Gotti.

I peruse row upon row of Mitt Romney bobbleheads. “I wish Romney had won,” Gi says, not because of any political leanings but because he has so much overstock. “Now free. Anybody want to come in, they like Romney, we give you free.”

Gi is slashing his prices. He says he has 200,000 pieces of merchandise that he’ll never be able to sell by January. Last winter, he placed big orders in anticipation of Obama’s second inauguration, only to find that security guards weren’t allowing people into the Old Post Office on Inauguration Day. “That is big problem,” he says. “We lost $30,000.”

And soon he’ll have to vacate the place where he has worked for 29 years. Gi understands he has no legal right to stay. He has had a month-to-month lease for the past few years and acknowledges he hasn’t paid his rent for the last few months, choosing to pay his six employees instead. He just wishes he could stay open three additional months.

“March, April, May: best season . . . cherry blossom time,” he says. “That make everybody happy here. Tourist people, too.”

And after that, what? Gi says he doesn’t know where he might be able to reopen. It’s tough for small, independent business owners.

“Lots of building owners, they looking for franchise: Starbucks, Chipotle.”

They’re not looking for Mitt Romney bobbleheads. And Gi doubts he’ll be let back in the Old Post Office after the renovation. He’s sure that different stores will grace the lobby.

“Trump open Tiffany diamond company, Chanel, Gucci,” he says.

What Gi wonders is this: How does a little piece of Pennsylvania Avenue go from something for the “tourist people” to something for the rich people?

And I begin to see his point. The Old Post Office Pavilion was always a little sad — a little empty, a little redolent of the fry oil from Chick-En-Joy and Hot Dog Mania — but the middle school bus trips could unload there, the office workers could get a pack of smokes, the hungry could get a cheap meal, the tourists could get a souvenir. You could get a French wrap at Connie’s Nails or blow off some steam with a video game at Capital Arcade.

“Everywhere not this kind of building,” Gi says. “Here is only tourist people area. Then Trump is buy. He decided D.C. So many hotel here. I don’t know whose decision. Obama? . . . Who know next time? Another building, too?”

His English may be imperfect, but Gi has sketched out what’s happening all over our city, as a type of progress that doesn’t have much room for the small or the scrappy rolls on.

The Old Post Office tenants I spoke with bear no ill will toward The Donald. He is, after all, what they want to be: a success. An entrepreneur is an entrepreneur. The difference between making hundreds selling Obama bobbleheads and making millions selling Manhattan apartments is just a matter of scale.

Trump visited the building a few months ago. Neither Gi nor Sung spoke with him, though they saw him looking down into the atrium from the overlook that rings the food court.

“God is making Trump,” Gi says. “Also making me, too.”

john.kelly@washpost.com

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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.
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