While shopping at Anacostia's only department store, one can usually hear the parakeets chirping in the back.
Most stores no longer sell the small blue and yellow songbirds. But there's a lot that's old-fashioned about this F.W. Woolworth store in the heart of Anacostia, beginning with the front door. Its glass and heavy wood and the entranceways are paved in mosaic tile with a "W" in the center.
Inside, the store still has its original wooden floor, ancient wood-and-glass display counters and a pressed-tin ceiling of intricate design that could cost a small fortune today.
"My grandmother shopped here, my mother shopped here and now I work here," said Sandra Jones, 39, who is responsible for keeping the front half of the store stocked. "The oldness of this place is nice."
"I have been shopping here since I was 12," said Lottie Brake, 30, as she looked for diapers with her 2-year-old son Monty, held in tow by the hood of his jacket.
"My mother used to bring me here," she said. "I live in the neighborhood and this is a convenient store. Nobody else has such a big selection."
For 49 years the Woolworth store and its trademark red and gold sign have stood on Good Hope Road SE. When it opened in 1937 it was the centerpiece of a thriving neighborhood shopping strip serving a largely white community that lived in modest homes on nearby streets and poorer blacks who lived about a mile away in two enclaves -- Barry Farms and Hillsdale.
Today Anacostia is largely bereft of businesses, except for eating places, and now is better known as the home of some of the city's poorest families and of unpopular city and federal institutions, including a recently opened shelter for the homeless.
The Woolworth's, called "ancient" by assistant manager Joseph Hoff, 27, would be considered a gem by preservationists for its 15-foot-high ceiling and cornices, its many supportive columns, and half a football field of narrow-planked oak flooring.
It is one of three Woolworth stores in the city and the only one that has not been renovated. There is peeling paint on some walls and water stains on another.
A face lift is planned, store manager Harold Jewett, 33, said with assurance. But he added that he has been given no date for the start of the expected renovation, which would probably include a new, lower ceiling, metal counters and a modern floor covering.
The local residents consider the old store invaluable for its convenient location and variety of merchandise -- much of it for children.
"This store could live off the sale of Pampers," said Jones, who stacks the shelves daily. The store's far left aisle is devoted almost entirely to huge boxes of diapers, baby clothes, cradle blankets and other infant paraphernalia.
Half the far right aisle is stocked with children's games and toys, but don't look here for computer games. Beyond are household cleaning products and detergents.
In the rear are the parakeets. And their cages, bird food, fishbowls and plants.
The rest of the store holds kitchen wares, school supplies, bedroom slippers, tennis shoes, paper flowers, paint brushes, shoe polish, birthday candles, photo albums, bath oil, cassette tapes, televisions, alarm clocks, and even embroidered handkerchiefs.
At the toy counter, Radcliffe Williams, 7, stood on tiptoe to eye the fire engines at nose level. He spent 20 minutes carefully inspecting each toy, reaching through broken cellophane covers to finger a truck and a gun, paying no heed to a nearby sign that said, "Do Not Play With the Toys."
His grandmother, Rebecca Hardin, was at another counter checking the prices of water glasses.
"I've been shopping here for 24 years," she said. "I live four blocks away and I come out when I feel well enough to walk. All the other stores I remember from when I moved here are gone now," she said. "This is the only one we have left to shop." "Being the only one doesn't guarantee success," said Jewett. "You have to have the merchandise people want. If you don't have what they want, they will stop coming."
Once a month Jewett, who has been at the store for three years, offers his customers some items for $1.
Jewett also offers his customers security: An armed guard who stands by the front door and checks packages of customers entering the store.
"We've had the guard for about 10 years," Jewett said. "There was a time when we had a lot of robberies. We want to protect our customers and employes ."
Every Tuesday is "bird day" at Woolworth's when a new shipment of 12 parakeets arrives, Hoff said.
"When I first started working here, I was scared to handle them," he said. "I would hold on to them so tight, I'd kill them. Now I handle them all the time."
The store sells about eight parakeets a week at the regular price of $15.99. But the sales double when they put them on sale for $9.99, he said.
Jewett dreams of improving the store. "I'd like to put in a tank and sell goldfish," he said. "If I can figure how to get water pumped to this floor, I'll do it. I remember buying goldfish when I was a kid. That is what this store needs. Goldfish."