Paving Over Plumbers' Paradise
After Serving the Blue-Collar Community Since 1957, A Longtime Fixture Prepares to Shutter Its Doors

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

Rick Plumley did not need any faucets, toilets or bathtubs when he stopped the other day at Washington's version of a plumber's paradise, a filthy, windowless warehouse in the center of the city.

He stepped past the rusting front door, the cluttered shelves and found what he was looking for, what he always finds at the Atlantic Plumbing Supply Co.: a crowd of familiar faces -- Pop and George and Harry and Jeff kibitzing and cursing and trading their favorite one-liners.

Like the one Plumley told about the doctor who complains to the plumber that he only gets $225 an hour. "And the plumber says, 'I know. I used to be a doctor,' " said Plumley, howling with laughter.

In buttoned-down, bureaucratic Washington, Atlantic Plumbing has long been a timeless reminder that a blue-collar heart thumps at the city's core. It was a place where men could be men in all their profane glory, where jeans and work shirts were the couture of choice, where a never-before-heard bathroom joke was to die for.

The tool-belt set will have to find a new oasis beginning next week. Tomorrow, after 49 years, Atlantic Plumbing is shutting its doors for the last time.

Ed Needle, Atlantic's owner who took over the business from his father 25 years ago, is selling his two-acre plot near Florida and Georgia avenues for upwards of $30 million, or more than 10 times what the family paid decades ago when the neighborhood was a gritty mix of warehouses, garages and rowhouses.

"You can't blame him," plumber Mike Johnson said as he dished out a thank-you lunch for Atlantic's staff one afternoon last week -- pans of barbecue, corn bread and baked beans laid on a sheet of plywood. "But it's going to hurt people. There's just no place like it."

The banter, the jokes and the convenient location weren't all that kept plumbers coming back to Atlantic's bunker at 807 V St. NW, as the address reads in hand-scrawled black marker over the entrance. With its concrete floors and dirty walls, the place has all the ambience of the inside of a rusty pipe.

Where else could the plumbers talk of converters, gaskets and adapters and be understood? Where else could they demonstrate their brawn by hoisting a 200 pound, cast-iron tub?

And where else could they confer on each other the kind of respect hard to find in a world that often lampoons them as overpaid, malodorous slobs who struggle to keep their pants up?

"Without plumbers, we'd be a Third World country," said Dave Johnson, president of his own plumbing company, munching on one of those barbecue sandwiches, as heads around him nodded. "We're God's gift."

Johnson's introduction to Atlantic began 40 years ago, when he was 6 and his grandfather, a plumber, brought him along on shopping trips. Plumley, 53, a Crofton plumber, was initiated into Atlantic's world the same way. Later, he brought his own son, Geoff, who also became a plumber.

"There's a big emotional hole," Plumley said, as he considered the prospect of shopping at suppliers in more remote neighborhoods. "There's no personality. This is all personality. Everyone knows me, and I know everyone."

The well-wishers parading through the shop's doors in recent days included Kelli Walsh, 37, known on her business card as "Wench with a Wrench." She's among the few women plumbers who frequented the place. In her younger days, Walsh was known to have knocked a few of her male colleagues flat when they cracked overly wise.

"I survived the locker room," Walsh acknowledged. She imagined her life without Atlantic: "To every plumber in town, it's devastating. Where else can I curse?"

Unfettered profanity has been a celebrated tradition at Atlantic Plumbing since it was founded by Gilbert Needle, a World War II veteran who was a junk dealer before graduating to plumbing supplies.

After purchasing Atlantic in 1957, Gilbert Needle, and later, his son, assembled five neighboring parcels, including a plot around the corner where they opened a showroom for bathroom fixtures.

Atlantic survived the 1968 riots and the crack wars of the '80s and '90s. Generations of plumbers came and went, shouting their orders as they bellied up to the long counter, three and sometimes four deep. The shop would get so crowded that fights sometimes broke out and customers demanded that the Needles install a number system. Their request was ignored.

"It would have been something else to deal with," Ed Needle recalled. "We enjoyed the fights."

Needle described his father as a "little dictator," who thought nothing of berating employees if they got something wrong. But Gilbert Needle, who died last year at 88, also paid employees' utility bills if they were broke, and hired out-of-work plumbers to staff the counter.

"He was a S.O.B., and he'd call you that if you deserved it," recalled Howard "Pop" Wynn, 80, a 23-year employee as he ate a veal cutlet lunch in his usual spot, in a nook surrounded by 200 drawers filled with gaskets and converters. An old filing cabinet was his table.

"One helluva guy," Wynn said of Gilbert Needle. He paused for a moment, containing his emotion. "He was all our fathers, in a sense."

Wynn was so loyal that he recruited workers, including his son Jeff, who said it took time to adjust to Atlantic's code of conduct. At the place he worked before, Jeff Wynn recalled, he'd answer the phone by saying "Good afternoon." But at Atlantic, he said, a typical exchange would start with "What do you want, you S.O.B.?"

And that was the boss talking.

Jeff Wynn soon grew comfortable, though not everyone could endure the clanging discourse, including a newly hired saleswoman who blanched from the moment she came in until she went home.

"She lasted three days," Ed Needle said with a shrug.

Needle started working part time at Atlantic when he was 12, around the time he painted his name on a brick wall in the back. It's still there. Now 59, he said he loved the long, grueling hours, the absence of a dress code, the freedom.

"Everyone was yelling and screaming, cursing, and no one thought anything of it," he said, a cigar between his teeth as he sat at a desk overlooking the counter. "You could do anything you wanted, it was all accepted."

Over the past decade, he said, as real estate prices rose, developers inquired if he wanted to sell. He was never interested, figuring that he'd pass Atlantic on to his son, Brian, 33, who, after graduating from college with a psychology degree, announced that he was ready to go into the business.

Then, a couple of years ago, a developer began building a condominium known as The Rhapsody around the corner. Another builder announced plans for apartments across the street.

Needle could feel his resolve slipping by the time a New York developer approached him last year with plans for more condos. They met his price. He declined to specify what he's getting, but he said it's between $30 million to $50 million.

Before he died, Needle said, his father told him it was time to cash in. He's convinced he's doing the right thing the right way. Needle told his three dozen employees of his decision months ago, keeping them on as business dwindled, promising severance pay and giving them time to look for new jobs.

Still, he wonders how he'll fill up all those hours that he devoted to Atlantic Plumbing.

"I feel like I made a pact with the devil," he said. "What am I going to do? I always have an answer, or an opinion. I have nothing on this."

Mike Johnson, 40, a plumber who has been a customer since graduating from high school, has his own ideas, one of which is to regularly commune with the past.

When the new condos go up, he's thinking about buying an apartment and turning it into a clubhouse for the old Atlantic crowd. He envisions a fridge loaded with beer, no furniture and the requirement that anyone dropping by has to wear their plumbing uniforms.

He said he's still deliberating on whether to install a toilet.

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