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A Soft Spot for Hardware Store's Tees

By Stephen Lowman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009

More than 40,000 items are for sale at Frager's Hardware. Passageways at the Capitol Hill business are crammed with bungee cords and door hinges in one aisle, foil cupcake liners and cowbells (in blue or beige) in the next.

One product, however, is displayed prominently at the cash registers.

"We had to move the T-shirts up front a couple years ago," co-owner John Weintraub said. "We got tired running up and down the stairs."

The T-shirts, printed with the store's name and date of establishment (1920), have been around since 1975. For most of that time, they were kept in a closet in the upstairs office and worn only as the casual uniform of Frager's employees. Then about five years ago, more and more customers began asking to buy them.

"They just sort of caught on, so we just kept making more and selling them," said Ed Copenhaver, the other co-owner.

More than 1,300 size-large T-shirts ($10) were sold last year. Sure, that is a paltry number compared with the 6,000 keys the store copies in one month. But for a hardware store that in one year sells about 500 white toilet seats, 120 hammers and 25 ladders, the shirt has been an unexpectedly strong seller.

"It comes in sizes 2T to 3X," Weintraub said.

The owners said the T-shirts are popular gifts for dads, especially if the dad helped his grown-up children fix up their first place and came to Frager's for all the parts. Store owners have also received calls from women looking to buy a T-shirt for their handyman husbands who no longer live in the area and miss the store.

"I've been out in Virginia driving along and here comes this guy walking by with a Frager's T-shirt on. You wonder, 'What is he doing wearing one?' " Copenhaver said. "But you've got to stop asking that and just appreciate they're wearing one!"

Zinta Saulkains, 35, and Charlene Fletcher, 39, bought two T-shirts three years ago when they were living together on the Hill. They often stopped by Frager's to pick up flowers and lawn products.

"We loved that it was a neighborhood store," said Saulkains, who now lives in Bethesda but still sports her T-shirt. "We thought the design was cool and would wear them out to bars."

Fletcher said that though the T-shirt was bought at a hardware store, she would not think of wearing it while performing household chores.

"Oh, it's not a gardening T-shirt," said Fletcher, who still resides on the Hill. "It's definitely a couple steps up from that."

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