A Blaze of Memory and Regret

The Comet, scheduled to close next week, has operated in Adams Morgan since the 1930s, the owners say.
The Comet, scheduled to close next week, has operated in Adams Morgan since the 1930s, the owners say. (Photos By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Lisa Drazin cried when she ordered the banner announcing "Farewell Sale," and she cried some more when she hung it in the window of the liquor store her father opened most mornings for 25 years, including on the day he died.

After his funeral in March, Sidney Drazin's family vowed to keep open the Comet, the Adams Morgan liquor store and deli where generations have traipsed for French and Italian wines, bagels imported from New York and a near-bottomless font of conversation.

But the workload has proved too much for Drazin's widow, Bernice, 76, who plans to close next week and sell off everything, including the dinosaur of a cash register and the shop's art deco sign, which the family says was put up in the 1930s and has evolved into a glowing neighborhood landmark. A hair salon chain is negotiating with the family to lease the property at Columbia Road NW.

"It's like pulling my father apart," Lisa Drazin said as she stood a few feet from the wooden stool where the famously provocative owner once launched a thousand and one debates over everything from mayoral politics to the Iraq war to whether the new Starbucks in the next block would succeed (he bet against it).

"This store is my father," Lisa Drazin said. "He lived here."

The Comet's closing is is one of many changes occurring in Adams Morgan, an economically and racially diverse Northwest Washington neighborhood that has long served as a bridge between affluent enclaves to the west and poorer sections to the east.

No matter whether Democrats or Republicans controlled the White House, the neighborhood retained its mix of the blue-collar and the whimsical, with establishments such as Madam's Organ, a tavern; Shake Your Booty, a shoe store; and So's Your Mom, a deli that doesn't know from lattes. On 18th Street, a news dealer still sells rolling paper and bongs.

Yet in recent years, Adams Morgan has drawn the kinds of stores that shoppers can find in many neighborhoods and malls, chains such as Starbucks and Blockbuster and Design Within Reach, a high-end furniture store that recently opened on the ground floor of a new apartment building, where a two-bedroom unit rents for $3,550 a month.

A few blocks away, at 17th Street and Kalorama Road, Harris Teeter, the national supermarket chain, is negotiating to open a store across from where a developer is converting a warehouse into lofts, among a glut of residential projects underway or recently completed in the area.

On Adams Mill Road, a couple of blocks from the Comet, Douglas Jemal, the developer who has helped revive Seventh Street NW, recently bought a three-story office and commercial building, forcing out a substance-abuse treatment center, a florist, an antiques dealer and an electronics store that has been there for 22 years. Jemal said he plans to remodel the building and lease it to commercial tenants.

"We'll see what the market will bring," he said. "It's a great neighborhood."

Yet longtime proprietors, residents and even some business leaders are less than enthusiastic about the situation. They fear that the encroachment of national chains will drive out owners unable to afford rising rents and sap the neighborhood of its disheveled charm.

"I don't begrudge a landlord making a dollar, but what they don't notice is that the reason why we moved to the city is going down the tubes," said Pat Patrick, a commercial real estate broker and vice president of the Adams Morgan Business and Professional Association. "It's becoming suburbanized."

The Drazins are closing the Comet on their terms, because they own the property at 1815 Columbia Rd., but that's not the case of many proprietors who rent and are feeling the squeeze.

Miss Pixie's, an antiques store that specializes in the fanciful, is located on the ground floor of the building Jemal bought. Pixie Windsor, the owner, said she will close next month but will stay in the neighborhood, although at double the rent.

Her neighbor, Sefika Kurt, who opened Little Shop of Flowers 14 years ago after emigrating from Turkey, is still looking. She is angry, she said, that the market seems to favor chain stores with bottomless pockets. "It's not about your ability to do business; it's about whether you have the money," she said as she stood behind the counter, where she regularly arranges an array of colorful floral concoctions. "That broke my heart."

At the Comet, customers are experiencing a different sort of heartache. Max Lockwood, 35, who spends many a weekend morning commiserating with regulars at the shop's breakfast table, has been bracing for the moment when the Comet would close since Drazin died. He said he has no interest in the cafes where "everyone is plugged into an iPod or a computer."

"More than anything, this represented the previous generation's reliance on community," he said. "Where else can you go for bad coffee and good conversation?"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company