By now, popular opinion has figured out what the headstone should say: Here lies Hechinger, dead by its own hand.
The famed Washington lumberyard will close at the end of the year, a victim of long-simmering bankruptcy. Why such a sad ending for such a local legend? Because Hechinger failed to provide good service, competitive prices or knowledgeable employees, many people say. It wasn't supple enough to handle competition, or hip enough to attract twenty-somethings, the wise guys think.
Its mascot, Harry Homeowner, supposedly symbolizes the problem perfectly . . . poor old Harry, that stodgy '50s dude in the porkpie hat who didn't get it about the need to pipe in the Bee Gees or have stores the size of three football fields.
I say hogwash. I say fickle customers killed Hechinger -- customers with the perverse desire to spite the old and familiar just because it was old and familiar.
It happens in every business, and it has happened in Washington over the past decade with dismaying regularity.
Radio stations that dominate the market suddenly leak listeners who can't resist sampling something new. Never mind that the new stations have no Washington "fit." Fickle listeners jump, and they don't jump back.
How about grocery chains that discover cut-raters eating at their bases, even though the cut-raters don't have the selection, convenience or history of caring about the community?
How about full-service restaurants that build a clientele for decades, only to see Mom choose a hopelessly predictable fast-foodery because her kids have seen the ads on TV?
Even (gulp) newspapers that have been all things to all people for ages have seen loyalists stop being loyal. Too bad if their substitute choices leave them far less well-informed.
Hechinger faced that same restlessness, that same customer who felt comforted (not repelled) by a national chain. Hechinger reacted by trying to stay the course.
It knew itself and its hometown history. It decided not to throw the 50-yard bomb if the running game had built the franchise. It figured that a track record meant something.
In fact, Hechinger's track record was exceptional. Be honest about it, all who shopped there. If you went into a Hechinger store, you seldom saw employees loafing, chatting or sipping a root beer, even in the last couple of years. You almost never saw dirty floors or junk all over the parking lot. What you did see was a festival of goods, more than you could ever hope to use. You knew you could find what you wanted. You usually did.
So what if you had to wait once in a while? Do you stop renting movies if you have to stand in line at Blockbuster once in a while? So what if some items were sold out a small percentage of the time? Do you abandon your favorite restaurant because they're out of the salmon one night?
And so what if some employees didn't walk you through every step of the doghouse you planned to build? Do you ask the guy who stocks the grocery shelves for advice on recipes? If I were building a doghouse, I'd do the research before I went to buy the supplies.
The rap about know-nothing Hechinger employees is way, way wrong. I can prove it with my own ignorance.
When it comes to home repair, that ignorance is vast. One day in the 1970s, I wandered into the sainted old Hechinger at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Brandywine Street NW (it's now a faceless, soulless chain drugstore -- how utterly, ironically perfect). I was looking for storm windows. I knew the size I wanted. I figured that was all I'd need.
The fellow who was working that department could have sold me the blue-plate special and been done with it. But he knew the right questions to ask: How old was my house? Was the house in a shady place? Were the sashes on any of the windows rotting?
I ended up buying storm windows that were a little more expensive than the bottom of the line. But did I feel ripped off? Are you kidding? That Hechinger employee sold me storms that still work beautifully. The extra money I spent on them (only about $30) was well worth it.
Try it this way, those who still doubt: How many car dealers would ask you where you park, and how fast you drive, in an effort to sell you the right car? That was the equivalent of what the Hechinger employee did. He customized the sale.
But the biggest hypocrisy in the Hechinger obituary has to do with price.
Shoppers supposedly abandoned Hechinger because some items were more expensive than at the competition. But these are the same shoppers who spend $3 on a latte without batting an eye, who drop $120 on a pair of shoes without doing any comparison shopping, just because they like the way the shoes look.
Hechinger was not Giant Food. It did not sell you lettuce one week and more lettuce the next week. It sold you a paintbrush in 1974, and another in 1986. It had no incentive to gouge you on the first brush, because you wouldn't return for the second. The trick was to build a business over time -- to make a slow nickel, not a fast quarter.
But the spoiled and the ungrateful decided that Hechinger's day had passed. Now they can console themselves with national chains that don't have any more local loyalty than they do. Maybe the garish fluorescent lights in those chain stores will illuminate who's really to blame for our Hechingerlessness.