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A Familiar Brand, Reborn in Pixels

By John Kelly
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

R ichard Hsu is shopping at Hechinger again.

He's not walking its aisles, however. Hechinger exists only in cyberspace, at http://www.hechinger.com , which is what the Bethesda reader stumbled upon recently while shopping online for power tools.

"Looks real," wrote Richard in an e-mail to me. "Can it be true -- a second life in the ether(net) for old marques?"

It is true, though the five-month-old site has no connection with the Hechinger that Washingtonians remember. It's the brainchild of Michael Golden , president of Home Decor Products, a New Jersey-based e-commerce company that already has a presence on the Web with such sites as http://www.homeclick.com .

"We are actually the biggest Internet home improvement fixtures seller," Michael told me last week. Home Decor Products started in the bath and kitchen area. Michael wanted to move beyond toilets and soap dispensers. He dreamed of tools: reciprocating saws, jigsaws, wood chisels, claw hammers.

But what to name a company that sold these things online? Should it sound digital and Webby, or should it send a different message?

I find it fitting that a man who sells bathroom fixtures was in the bathroom when inspiration struck.

"I was in the shower one day," Michael remembered. "Rather than 'e-tools' or 'i-tools' or something else that sounded like an Internet business, maybe the Hechinger brand was out there. That was the kind of store we wanted to have." Michael remembered Hechinger from growing up in Philadelphia, where it was once the dominant big-box home improvement store.

Sidney Hechinger opened his first hardware store in 1919 at Sixth and C streets SW. His son, John W. Hechinger , and son-in-law, Richard England , took over in 1958. The chain struggled in the 1990s, squeezed by such big retailers as Home Depot and Lowes. The Hechinger family sold the company in 1997, and in 1999 Hechinger declared bankruptcy and closed its doors.

Its mortal remains, as it were, were buried at Fleet Bank in Boston, the bankruptcy trustee that owned the Hechinger brand. Michael said he paid less than $100,000 for the name. "I think it was a good investment," he said.

What he got for his money were all of the hardware chain's trademarks, including the distinctive stenciled-letter Hechinger logo and its motto. "The World's Most Unusual Lumber Yards" has been reborn as "The World's Most Unusual Hardware Site."

I had to ask: What about Harry and Harriet Homeowner, Hechinger's Ward and June Cleaveresque DIY mascots?

"We own Harry and Harriet Homeowner as well," Michael said. "We have plans to incorporate that into our marketing."

The most important thing Home Decor Products acquired was something Michael calls "mindshare": the warm feeling we get when we think of Hechinger -- at least the Hechinger that existed before its death spiral resulted in empty shelves and clueless employees.

"Generations grew up with that brand, and while maybe there were some problems at the end, I still think it was a great brand," Michael said.

What do the Hechingers themselves think, now that they're long removed from their famous hardware store?

"I'm certainly flattered, and the family's flattered, that people hold the name in high regard," said John Hechinger Jr . of Bethesda.

Coffee Service

I'm glad to see that something else has been revived, and in the real world, not in cyberspace.

For six years, Romi Seyoum sold coffee in The Washington Post's cafeteria. The Ethiopian immigrant knew everyone's favorite order, whether it was a hot chai, a skim latte or a decaf Americano. Nearly two years after closing her cart in the cafeteria, Romi is brewing again.

With the help of the Akridge company, Romi recently opened Sidamo, a coffee and pastry stand in the lobby of 941 North Capitol St. NE.

The Union Square building houses many offices of the District government, so if you find yourself in need of a soothing cup of coffee while visiting the Office of Tax and Revenue or the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, let Romi help you.

Numbers Game!

When you are a newspaper columnist, it is always troubling to open your e-mail and find a message along the lines of "I'm sure I won't be the only person to point out this error today."

A message much like that one came Thursday from Herb Caudill , who said that my column about UPC codes should not have referred to all the permutations possible for a 14-digit bar code as "14 factorial" (which is written as 14!).

Said Herb: "If a bar code has 14 digits, then the number of possible numbers is 10{+1}{+4} (ten to the 14th power, or 100,000,000,000,000), not 14! (which is 87,178,291,200)."

As promised, Herb was not the only person to correct this English major's mistake (which, in my defense, I based upon bad information from the international bar code organization).

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