It looked like a normal day at Hechinger in Northeast Washington yesterday: store clerks carrying packets of potting soil for elderly women. Paint-stained contractors running in quickly to pick up tubes of caulking. A boat owner stopping by on her lunch break to buy hacksaw blades to cut through rusty nails.
Then the news started trickling out that the store, a community landmark and the anchor business of Hechinger Mall, is going to close, along with the entire chain. This is not just any home improvement store. It's a neighborhood institution, easily accessible by bus and within walking distance of hundreds of residences.
"I think that's terrible," said 81-year-old Gladys Herschel, a customer who has shopped at Hechinger for the 24 years she has owned her house on Capitol Hill. "I'm very, very disappointed. Everything from the light for my front entrance to light bulbs and screws and even plants--sure! Where else would I go?"
Even if Hechinger wasn't always perfect, in this inner-city neighborhood, the departure of any business is ominous.
The reaction to the news of the chain's demise was different in an Alexandria mall anchored by a Hechinger: There, for some, the home improvement store's decline over the years made the departure almost welcome.
At the Northeast mall, a red-brick beacon at the crossroads of Benning and Bladensburg roads, H Street and Maryland Avenue, people already have seen two banks leave, along with two national shoe store chains, a children's clothing store, a men's clothing store and a record store.
"Everything's, like, moving out, but everyone thought Hechinger's would stick around," said Ralph Carroll, who remembers the small lumber store Hechinger opened here in 1951 before the mall was built. "I mean, that's why it's called Hechinger's Mall."
"It's gonna hurt all the way around--the neighborhood, the contractors and the employees. This is a stressful moment. Yup, it's gonna be rough."
"Definitely," agreed Annie Price, chatting with Carroll inside Lee's Bar-B-Que, down the sidewalk from Hechinger. "It's sad."
And there was little joy among the other mall occupants about the prospects of losing Hechinger. "They get a lot of people and some of that traffic comes to us," said Kenneth Coleman, the manager of the Safeway behind Hechinger.
"I think it's going to make less business for us because people come specifically for Hechinger's," said Vernelle Gillison, co-manager of Ashley Stewart, a women's clothing store. "It's the main store here."
But at Hechinger Commons in Alexandria, Ken Moore was delighted to hear that the Hechinger two doors away from his small shop soon would be gone.
"They're killing me, basically," said Moore, who five years ago opened the Wild Bird Center at Hechinger Commons. Back then, happy customers would shuttle from Hechinger to his bird supply shop and back, bringing business. Lately, though, customers come in seething, or don't come in at all.
"They'd come over here so frustrated," he said, mimicking one: "I just tried to get a key made. It took 45 minutes!"
Moore said as a small business owner he relies on the mall's anchor store to bring people to him.
"I need a draw," he said. "I can't survive by myself."
He and neighboring business owners have been waiting for Hechinger to close, hoping there is truth to the rumor that a Harris Teeter grocery store will replace it, bringing hordes of neighborhood shoppers with it.
"That's what I'm hoping for," said Bagel Place owner Alessandro Ciaccio, a few doors down from Moore. "That was a dead corner."