WHAT?

Meenehan's Hardware closed?

The Washington Monument should close, all right, that we can accept. But Meenehan's!

This is the place, up there at 3241 M St. between a head shop and a record store, where you could go in and say, "I need one of those little bent pieces of metal with six sides and you turn things with it," and the clerk is already reaching for it in a whole wallful of pieces of metal, and he says without missing a beat, "Oh, you mean an Allen wrench, and what size do you want, or would you rather have the set?"

For the last few days they had a rather frantic sale (paint, $4 a gallon), but now the "CLOSED" sign was up, and a girl was taping strips of brown paper on the bay front windows.

Still stacked mournfully in one show windown were six cans of paint, and some boxes of air conditioner filters. An artificial Christmas tree, complete with ornaments, had a SOLD tag on it, and a name: Ann Brinkley.

That was another thing about Meenehan's: You had to look closely at those raggedy customers in their old khakis and holey sneakers buying ant poison or paint remover on a Saturday morning, because about half of them were U.S. senators or judges or newscasters or something.

"I'm so upset I can't think," said John F. Meenehan Jr., at 77 a bull of a man with the soft flat "a" of County Mayo lingering in his voice. "It happened so fast."

Attorney Paul Lee Sweeny, who owns the building, said it was simply a case of his not renewing the five-year lease, which ends Jan. 30.

Meenehan's been at this spot since 1965, a hardware man all his life. Got his first job with Dismer Hardware at Park Road and 14th Street, close to the family home. Opened a store of his own at 2010 14th St. in '21, moved down the block, sold out to Peoples Drug, bought the Georgetown building from another Irishman named Mulloy for $68,000.

Nailed to the Meenehan counter is an old copper plaque: Kentucky Hardware Co., T. J. Mulloy, Prop.

"He and my father never did get along. They both had barrooms. This place used to be a barroom, you know. Ou can still find the old tile floor, little white square tiles, somewhere under here."

Meenehan's father came to this country in 1895, at 13, worked the New York docks, the Pittsburgh steel mills, became a bartender in Philadelphia, was taken under the wing of a Washington bar owner, "Uncle Mike Morris," who set him up in his own place when he married Morris' daughter Mary.

In Prohibition, what happened to all these Irish bar owners was that they drifted into hardware. Carpenter tools, bricks and mortar: It was what they knew.

"Pop took his family back to Ireland because of his health," Meenehan said. "There were nine of us, and we we went to school there. Then we moved back."

Now he's retiring and leaving the business to his sons, Patrick and John F. 3d, mostly know as Bo. The Meenehan empire used to include five stores, with two each in Marland and Virginia, but today only the Virginia stores, at Willston and Reston, survive.

"We made our biggest tactical error in selling this building in 1955 to help finance the branches," remarked Pat Meenehan, 36."The heyday of the business was from the '20s to the late '40s, when the discount houses and catalogue stores and membership stores came in. At one time we had the General Electric concession for the whole Washington area, including light bulbs. And we were a big dealer of Johnson outboard motors. But times change."

They plan to open a new place somewhere in the District.

One reason they probably won't be able to relocate in Georgetown is that, though the inventory only runs $70,000 to $90,000, a hardware store needs up to 5,000 square feet of display space. And in Georgetown, that costs. Sweeny, the owner, says he has no definite plans for the building as yet.

"It's a low-profit business," Pat Meenehan added. "We're a service business. A big discount store gets along with three or four clerks, but we need eight or 10. We still deliver, free on a $25 order $1.50 below that." w

And they give -- uh, gave -- that extra something. They had to be amateur plumbers, electricians, carpenters, bricklayers, painters, lawn experts, garden consultants, locksmiths and general handypeople.

"I wish I had a dime," he said, "for every time I wouldn't sell a customer crabgrass killer after July because the crabgrass dies then anyway.'

Some customers have sworn that they will drive out to Seven Corners rather than abandon Meenehan's. One man told Pat he had just turned 56, but he felt worse about Meenehan's closing than he did about passing 55.

The store looked tired. The linoleum floor was worn through to the wood around the counters. The old sculptured tin ceiling needed paint. Upstairs, where the Mulloys once lived, the wall plaster was coming off and the laths behind it were rotten. You could see where the back wall used to be, and the upstairs porch. You could see the fireplaces and the pull-chain tank for the toilet and the once-stylish old wallpaper in the bedrooms and sitting room, now an office.

"The roof leaks everywhere," John Meenehan said. "I had to put tarps over everything when it rained. I had to put in my own heat: There's no furnace. I had to rebuild the floors from scratch. I had to rewire the place. House must be 150 years old. But it's been a good location."

His own house is just full of hardware, he said, stuff that hasn't been moved to the Virginia stores. He also removed his collection of antique tools and fixtures, and his mounted fish. You could see the places where they had been.

The store was haunted with places where things had been. Four knives were left on the big knife display board. Empty hooks stuck out from the walls. Some Christmas balls sat forlornly on a shelf; cartons of brass pipe fittings and stovepipe elbows waited to be taken away. The nail bins were littered with loose nails, next to the old japanned Howe scales. On the wall above the phone, cryptic memos, a bad check for $12.35, clipboards with lists written on them: "Furnace filters. Wheelbarrows. Extension ladders. lStep ladders. Tank sprayers. Toilet seats. Letterbox slots . . . Charcoal . . . Rope. . . . "