At a time when most mom-and-pop groceries have gone the way of the hula-hoop and brontosaurus, Weisfeld's Market is thriving.
Weisfeld's, an institution on Capitol Hill since 1949, is the archetypal corner store -- so much so that the Smithsonian Nstitution this year invited 75-year-old Abe Weisfeld, his wife Sarah and 34-year-old son Marshal to be part of its Festival of American Folklife.
"They thought we typified the dying breed of American family businesses," says Marshal Weisfeld, who began working at the store at age 9. "But we don't think we're dying. Our business is growing 10 percent each year."
Weisfeld's, at Fourth and E streets SE, in the shadow of two Safeways and the city-subsidized Eastern Market, succeeds by offering what customers call the best cuts of meat on Capitol Hill.
"We do a big meat business in this little store," says Abe Weisfeld, who prides himself on being a butcher of old-school skill and style.
What's the difference between a good and bad butcher? "There's no difference today," Abe Weisfeld says, because there are no longer good butchers. The big chain store meatcutters hide behind their mirror-covered glass walls. They don't care. But I have to see the same faces every day.
"I have a personal relationship with my customers," Abe Weisfeld says, as he shaves three slices off a 12-pound slab of calves liver for one of his regulars, a 92-year-old woman. "Here's three pieces, Mrs. Keel. Two for you and one free for your cat. But make sure the cat gets the third piece."
Abe Weisfeld, a District native, says he learned the butcher's trade more than 50 years ago as a meatcutter in one of the city's five slaughterhouses. Packing houses are illegal in the District today, and Abe Weisfeld buys his beef and pork directly from two suppliers in Iowa.
Weisfeld's charges more for its beef than a neighboring Safeway, based on a comparison made last week -- 10 cents more per pound for hamburger, 70 cents more per pound for sirloin -- but Weisfeld insists he sells better quality beef. However, milk, dishwashing detergent and white bread sold for nearly the same price at both stores.
"Weisfeld's has the best meat in town," says Kathyrn Robinson, wife of Rep. Kenneth Robinson (R-Va.). "And the Weisfelds are great people to deal with. We've depended on them ever since we came to Washington. You just don't expect to find a store like this here."
The Weisfelds insist a family-run store can survive in the District. "Small stores are coming back," Marshal Weisfeld says. "People are more community-minded, and they appreciate service. At our market you can see the meat you buy and watch it being ground. It takes that unwelcome mystery out of your chili."
The corner store can succeed where the chain store fails, says Abe Weisfeld, who was president of the Associated Grocers of Washington, a market co-op which disbanded after dozens of independent stores went up in flames during the 1968 riots. "The small store owner can prosper," he says. "He just has to be fair to his customers."
Weisfeld's doors are open 76 hours a week, and Abe and Sarah Weisfeld are on the job almost the entire time, taking only a few quick breaks in their apartment above the store.
"My parents are of another generation," Marshal Weisfeld says. "Today people look towards leisure for escape, but my parents love work. They love being in this store."
The Weisfeld's day begins at 8 a.m., when the family braces itself for an onslaught of school children who crowd the store to buy candy.
The market is tiny, no more than 10 paces long and has narrow aisles. Sarah Weisfeld, in the front of the store, is at the cash register, wedged behind a counter under an impending avalanche of groceries. Her husband mans the meat counter in the rear of the store.
Their day calms down after the morning rush, althrough the market is getting busier with Thanksgiving orders for fresh-killed turkeys, capons, geese and ducks. Business picks up in late afternoon and gets frenzied as the 7:30 closing time approaches.
But Abe Weisfeld always has time to offer advice. You want to make Chinese food but don't know what kind of meat to buy? How much you'll need?
"Mr. Weisfeld is a good advisor," says Nicole Gara, a regular customer. "He tells me about the Depression. About how his mother used to make soup out of chicken feet. About how I shouldn't feel so bad about the price of hamburger."
Weisfeld's is a neighborhood store, says Gara's husband, Peter Share. "It's a throwback to the days when people really lived in neighborhoods. It's a store where people say 'Hello!' when you walk in the door. It's a nice store."