McBride's, a well-known small department store chain in Northeast Washington for nearly 40 years, quietly closed both its stores two weeks ago.
Just before, hundreds of shoppers flocked to snatch up last minute bargains at the McBride's stores at Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue and 700 H St. Last week the shelves were empty, the doors locked and the Benning Road store had a sign that said, "Closed Forever."
The Seventh and H Street store, the chain's flagship store, was also vacant.
"If I had known anything was wrong I would have tried to help them," said City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), whose ward includes the Benning Road area. "Growing up in Washington I remember McBride's very well, I know my parents used them . . . . I can tell you they will be missed."
Crawford said his office was negotiating with Morton's department stores, a McBride's competitor, and Peoples Drug stores about moving into the Benning Road location in the East of the River shopping center.
"It's one of the major shopping outlets in Ward 7, it serves many low-income people in that immediate area . . . my office used McBride's extensively to purchase items for our Constituency Service Office," Crawford said, " . . . we want to get [another store] in there right away."
The chain was founded in 1918 by Gus Blechman and is now run by the third generation of his family. No McBride's representatives could be reached for comment on the stores' demise.
McBride's was one of only two big-name variety stores that served the city's neighborhoods. It had no outlets downtown, preferring to sell in major community shopping centers. Residents could walk around the corner from their homes and buy clothing, shoes, toys, towels, toiletries, diapers, dishes, venetian blinds -- even a statue of Buddha. But some of McBride's longtime customers said the store had changed through the years and the quality of its merchandise had declined.
Catherine Cobbs, who lives a block from the Benning Road store, said she stopped shopping at McBride's several years ago. "They had such nice things at one time . . . but then it just became nothing but junk," she said, "and they had such a nasty attitude, with guards at the door and they wouldn't let children under age 16 in without an adult. I feel sorry for the people who lost their jobs, but I'm glad to see them go."
H.B. Moore, of 44th Street NE, said, "I've been shopping there for 30 years and you could buy anything you needed, and for a good price and the people knew how to wait on a customer. There were some real nice people there. The neighborhood is real upset about this."
"I think it [McBride's closing] hurts everyone," said Ellen Blaylock, of 4411 Dix St. NE. "I just can't understand why they went out of business. I've been shopping there for 30 or 40 years and I really hate to see them go."
McBride's is the second major store to close on H Street in the last two years, although city officials have long promised that the shopping corridor is on the verge of redevelopment.
Kwasi Holman, executive director of the city's Office of Business and Economic Development, said, "It's regrettable that a store chain that's provided so much to the District would go out of business. We believe, however, that both the H Street market and the Minnesota/Benning market are strong and these sites will not remain vacant for too long."
When fires swept down H Street following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in April 1968, McBride's escaped with a few broken windows with the help of a security guard who stood in a front window with a shotgun.
But it could not fight increasing competition from other discount chains. Privately, some observers speculated that McBride's had lost revenues and customers in recent years to other budget stores such as Zayre, Bradlees and Morton's. "They just couldn't compete anymore," said one city official.
"From the human standpoint of view I think it's a very sad thing," said Mortimer Lebowitz, president of the Morton's stores, which sell clothing. "We've competed with them for half a century and it's a sorry thing to see them disappear."
Gus Blechman opened his first five-and-dime store at 701 H St. NE in 1918. It prospered until 1945 when a fire gutted it. In 1949, the store reopened as McBride's.
Blechman's three sons, Nelson, Milton and Sylvan, ran the chain from the '40s to the '60s. In its heyday the chain had five stores: three McBride's outlets and two Kopy Kat stores that sold only women's apparel.
In 1976 McBride's grossed nearly $10 million, ranking it as one of the city's 25 top-grossing private businesses. But a year later, Barry Blechman, who headed the company, said "we're not making much money . . . 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."
By 1978, the owners had been forced to close the Kopy Kat shops and the McBride's store on Alabama Ave. SE.
In the mid-1970's the city helped McBride's secure a loan from the Small Business Administration, Holman said. He said he did not know the amount of the loan.
In addition, in 1972 a committee of Americans For Democratic Action attacked the chain for exploiting "the city's poorest people by charging scandalously high prices." The chain's owners vigorously denied the allegation.
Last week, longtime customer Paul Campbell, of 6240 Clay St. NE, stood in front of the vacant Benning Road store and shook his head. "This has been a real shock to the community, it's very rough for the people who live near here . . . it's hurt a lot of people."
Campbell, who works at the Standard Drug store next door to McBride's, said his employer is considering laying off workers because business has declind since McBride's closed. "Who knows, maybe my job will be next . . . it is terribly sad this had to happen," he said.