Everybody knew the store owner, but few people knew her name. She was just that nice lady behind the counter at the Sherman Market in Northwest Washington -- always smiling, always there, an accepted part of the neighborhood.
The working-class residents came to the small family grocery at the corner of Sherman Avenue and Columbia Road NW for beer and crackers, soft drinks and cigarettes, candy bars and bread and milk. Sometimes, she laughed at their jokes. Sometimes, she asked about their children and grandchildren. Sometimes, when they came up a nickel or a quarter short, she waved them out the door, telling them to be sure to bring the money next time.
Young Ja Cha, 42, died Friday afternoon after exchanging shots with either two or three men who had tried to rob her. District police are continuing their search for her killers but have no suspects, a police spokesman said.
Yesterday, Cha's customers were grieving and angry about her death.
"I feel awful about it," said Eddie Lee Scott, a hotel worker who lives in the 3100 block of Sherman Avenue. "It's bad enough to try to rob somebody and take what belongs to them, but why take their life, too? I didn't know her name, but I knew she was a good woman."
The entrance to the Sherman Market was padlocked yesterday, covered with a black iron grill -- an unknown sight on a Saturday morning. Usually, the store is open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day.
Knots of neighbors stood in the doorways of the row houses or paused on the trash-strewn sidewalk, discussing what had happened. A young man dribbling a basketball stopped to talk about the shooting with a friend. A moment later, an elderly woman, dignified in a navy blue hat and coat, tried to peer into the store through the window, her purse clutched tightly to her side. Cars slowed as they passed.
"Her husband was always there behind the meat counter, but you got the impression she was the one in control," said Vincent Whitaker, 28, a mail clerk. "You'd ask him something and he'd say, 'Go ask Mama.' And she'd take care of it for you."
Few people knew of the woman's life outside the store. She and her husband, Jun-Sung Cha, lived in suburban Maryland and had two children. They had bought the store about four years ago.
"She even knew the names of my grandchildren," said Doris Tutt. "She even knew the kind of cigarettes I smoked. Usually, I'd send some of the kids over to get what I needed, but sometimes I'd go myself. The first thing she would say to me was, 'What, nobody else home today?' She knew our habits."
Tutt said that her 10-year-old grandson, Maurice, burst into the house Friday afternoon after the shooting, crying, " 'The lady's dead! The lady at the store's dead!'
"It tore him all to pieces," Tutt said.
Gradually, it was dawning on the residents yesterday that, even if the store reopens, it will not be the same.
Whitaker recalled the last time he talked to Cha.
It was about 2:15 p.m. Friday. Whitaker sauntered in to buy a beer.
"Why aren't you at work?" Cha asked.
"I'm tired. I had to take a day off," Whitaker replied.
"You know you aren't going to make any money like that," Cha told him with a laugh. Whitaker ruefully agreed, then told her to have a good day and left. "See you later," she called after him.
Fifteen minutes later, the robbers entered the store.