Come and get it, gang. A plastic banana for 49 cents. A statue of Buddha for $19.99. Records and soap dishes and earrings and peanut brittle. When they call them McBride's Variety Department Stores, they mean variety.
They also mean relatively low prices. That is the hallmark of a department store chain that has been a fixture in Northeast and Southeast Washington since 1918. While the "big boys" have chased the big incomes into the suburbs, McBride's has sought and established its image as "the city's black department store."
Except that is isn't black.
Oh, the customers are, almost all of them. And all but a handful of the 250 employees are. And more than half the toy dolls have black faces. And all the background music is big-band soul.
But the owners are whites named Blechman. A third generation of them runs as the three McBride's stores, as well as the family's two Kopy Kat women's clothing shops.
If his last name sounds somewhat less than purebred Irish, Barry Blechman, the 40-year-old president of McBride's offers this explanation:
"People couldn't pronounce Blechman," he said. It rhymes with Fleckman. "So my grandfather decided to mix Murphy, his chief competitor, with Blechman. He came up with McBride's."
Whatever you say, Grandpa.
But let us not make light of Gus Blechman. He opened a five-and-dime in his own name in 1918 at 701 H St. NE. It propered until 1945, when a fire leveled it. But it reopened in 1949 as McBride's, and it has been the chain's flagship store ever since.
Gus Blechman's three sons, Nelson, Milton and Sylvan, ran the McBride's chain from the '40s into the '60s. Since then, the torch has been in the hands of Barry Blechman; his brother Richard; 36, the executive vice president; and a cousin, Arlen. Nelson remains chairman of the board, and Milton is treasurer.
"First and foremost, it's a family business," said Barry Blechman. "And a family business is a lot like a family, all the love and all the heartache. But everybody sticks together."
And everybody makes money. McBride's grossed between $9 and $10 million in 1976. That is enough to rank the chain among the city's 25 top-grossing private businesses.
But $9 to $10 million is exactly the performance McBride's has turned in for each of the last five years. "We're not making much money," said Barry Blechman. "I hate to publish that, but I can't say it's a boom industry . . . I don't know what it is, but there has been some decline in sales. It's something I'm concerned about, both in the long and short run."
Such flattening out has delayed for at least three years McBride's plans to open a fourth store. Its present three are located on H Street, at Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE, and in a remodeled movie theater at 2834 Alabama Ave. SE. Its Kopy Kat shops are located at 8th and E Streets SE and in the Eastover Shopping Center in Forest Heights.
McBride's strong image as a "black" store was nailed down in the late '60s, in a television advertising campaign that featured a 6-year-old girl. She was black and smiling and winsome, and she revealed endlessly that "my mommy shops at McBride's."
The store had a black following well before that, however. It emerged as the neighborhood around the H Street store changed, in the middle '50s, from white to black. The image was nurtured when McBride's became the first store on the H Street commercial strip to permit intergrated seating at its lunch counter.
But the '60s brought the seeds of trouble. "I started seeing a horror story on H Street," said Barry Blechman. "All the hate, with the underlying pride." Just after the 1967 riots in Detroit, "I looked out of the store one day and realized, 'This is riot street.'"
It became one the next April, of course. But the H Street McBride's suffered only a few broken windows. The fact that a security guard was standing in the front window with a shotgun had a lot to do with that, but Blechman likes to think that McBride's would not have been pillaged anyway.
At the largest McBride's, at Minnesota and Benning, Blechman watched the next day as a group of young boys came up to the front door. They were carrying rocks and bottles. A black security guard came out to meet them in the parking lot, shouting "Soul! Soul!" Even though that was anything but accurate, the boys left, and there was no trouble.
"We don't hide the fact that we're white," said Blechman, as he looked out his second floor office window onto the 50,000-square-foot floor of the Minnesota Avenue branch. "I mean, I sit here, you know?" It would make little sense to try to fool a nearly all-black clientele if they are one's livelihood, Blechman stressed.
Black shoppers are "very, very sensitive," Blechman said. They have a "very finely tuned feel for what's new in fashions. They're decisive when they buy."
Fashion is probably McBride's strong suit, although the stores carry almost everything except food and furniture. "They come here looking for the new styles they see on television," said Demetrice Jordan, a sports wear saleswoman. "And they find them."
McBride's aims at two kinds of families, Blechman said: Those on welfare and those earning between $8,000 and $10,000 a year.
"Our challenge has been to figure our how much money the people have and then get an assortment of merchandise to fit that income," Blechman said. It is store policy for there to be at least one item in every department "that anyone can afford," Blechman said. He denied, however, that cheaper means worse at McBride's.
McBride's has avoided bad vibrations over credit because it does not offer any on its own. It honors four local credit cards, but most sales are cash. The most expensive item in the store is a $39.99 women's winter coat.
Shoppers seem to choose McBride's because it is near their homes and offers so many items.
"Where else can I do all this shopping in one place?" asked Emma Jenkins, a Minnesota Avenue branch shopper, one recent afternoon. "I live right up the street," said another woman, who asked not to be identified."You want me to ride the bus all the way downtown?"
McBride's has not avoided head-to-head combat with Hecht's and Woodie's out of kindness. It resisted the drift to the suburbs because "we were known here" and because "we just wouldn't have the capacity to complete in a suburban environment," Blechman said. "There aren't any stores like this in the suburbs."
The future? "I don't know," Blechman replied. "I think it's important for a city to have centers like this right in the city. It needs to happen. But there's always a risk in retailing."