The only hardware store in Washington still selling horseshoes, chicken feeders, tobacco plug cutters and animal traps is leaving downtown after 120 years.
The W.S. Jenks & Son hardware store, a fixture on the corner of Seventh and H streets NW since the end of the Civil War, is a victim of escalating real estate prices and the success of the business.
"The only reason we are leaving is because of space and parking problems," said owner Victor Siegel, 64, who is gradually transferring most of the 50,000 items from the old store to a new Northeast location that is 10 times larger than the Seventh Street building. "The real estate is just too expensive for us to expand downtown," he said.
Siegel, who bought the store 31 years ago from the third generation of the Jenks family, said the store will close at the end of June, leaving downtown with just two hardware stores.
Some of the floor-to-ceiling shelves are now empty, but the store retains the feel of grandmother's attic stuffed to the rafters with curious treasures and mundane necessities. A display of pocketknives and horseshoes crowds the cash register near the front door. Across the room, cages for catching bobcats, dogs and raccoons are stacked by the front window. At the rear of the store hundreds of hammers and wrenches, in graded sizes, line the walls, and a row of hard hats hangs from the ceiling.
The basement is cluttered with buckets of paint and cartons of brushes, roach spray, mothballs, electrical cords and replacement keys. But it is the second floor that detains the customer who runs in just to buy something but discovers the 35 miniature drawers filled with brass or glass drawer pulls and the dozens of bins brimming with hinges, hooks and latches. Just as alluring is the dusty display of antique kerosene lamps, old-fashioned iron cookware and blue-striped crockery stacked on plain wooden shelves in the middle of the floor.
Last week, longtime customers Sandra Lauffer and her husband Tom Roberts found just the brass hinge needed to fit a small door.
They were pleased with their find but said they were dismayed that Jenks was leaving downtown. "They are taking away a resource for the city," said Lauffer, of Adams-Morgan. "This will force us to go to the suburbs to shop."
Lauffer said she considered any location outside of downtown as the suburbs.
"This is a place where they sell satisfying little pieces," she said, holding up a a decorative brass object. "I come here to find something interesting and then try and figure out what I can do with it."
Her husband, a former boat builder who is renovating their apartment, said he was impressed with the quality of the woodworking tools as well as the knowledgeable staff.
"These are the people who know how the town is put together," he said. "They understand about houses built in the '20s and the '30s. They know what tool it takes to repair a tongue-and-groove floor. When they go, we will lose an institutional memory for how things were made."
Roberts, who said he is custom-building everything in their apartment, pointed out the extensive selection of bar clamps ranging in size from six to 96 inches. "This is the only place I know where you can get a clamp long enough to clamp together 10 to 15 pieces of wood to make a large table," he said.
Jenks & Son also is unusual for its pricing system. When new stock comes in, the old stock keeps the old price, said clerk C. West Settle.
Last week, Settle helped a woman find the right replacement lock for her front door.
"I think this is what I am looking for," said Elaine Bowman as she closely examined the $24.95 lock. "But is this a good price?"
"Absolutely," said Settle. "Not only is it the last double-key dead bolt lock we have right now, it is cheaper than the newer one-key locks which just came in."
Siegel said that his business had already outgrown the downtown building once and he had opened a second store just for electronic tools at 2024 West Virginia Ave. NE. But that location is also closing, and its items will be consolidated in the new store at 1933 Montana Ave. NE.
Robert Kling, president of West End Corp., said he has a contract to purchase the historic Jenks building but has no immediate plans for its use. "It is a nice old building and, for right now, we will clean it up and lease it out," he said.
The new Jenks hardware store will still carry locks and horseshoes, but some items will be discontinued: the $50 hand-operated wheat mills displayed in the window, the $30 plug tobacco cutter, the $29.95 clothes iron heated with charcoal and the $21.99 cherry pitter.
"We have always said that if you can't find it at Jenks, it can't be found," said Siegel." . . . But that is no longer. Some of these old things, if they don't sell, will go into a Jenks museum at the new store."