For 52 years, the downtown Esther Shop has dressed the children of presidents, diplomats and ordinary folks. Yesterday it sold its last dresses and suits, closing its doors at 1207 F St. for good.
With the revival of the F Street corridor, bringing snazzy buildings and exclusive boutiques, it is easy to overlook the quiet passing of family-run businesses that once thrived in the old shopping district. But like other downtown institutions -- Rich's shoe store, the Goozh Gift Shop, the violin shops of the Weaver and Moglie families and, soon, Reeves Bakery -- the Esther Shop is one more victim of the area's success.
The stores survived downswings in the economy, a sharp drop in customers after the 1968 riots and, later, Metrorail construction. But they all have lost out one way or another to the revitalization of downtown.
Fannie Bigio, whose husband Sam opened the store in 1935, tells tales of daily battles with dust from neighboring construction and points out places where huge chunks of plaster fell from the ceiling during the razing of the building next door.
Bigio and her daughter Serene Farmer, who runs the remaining Esther Shop at Mazza Gallerie, said they would like to remain downtown but feel they are being snubbed by developers. "I'm looking for space downtown. I'd like to stay, and I'd pay $60,000 to $80,000 in rent, but I can't get developers to return my calls," Farmer said.
To Farmer and the dozens of former customers who flocked to the Esther Shop to say goodbye, the closing of the shop signals the end of a era of small businesses and a routine that generations of Washingtonians remember. "You can still go to Reeves for lunch and you can still see the Christmas windows at Woodies; we were part of that tradition," Farmer said.
Bigio said small-business people are being bumped in favor of "big-money men and chic chains like Benetton." She said, "We don't need any more boutiques, we need shops that cater to everyone."
Developers of posh office buildings in the area are charging up to $2,200 a square foot for rent that, in general, only law firms and banks can afford. Nine floors of the I.M. Pei-designed Columbia Square building, which spans the length of F Street between 12th and 13th, have been leased to the one of the city's largest law firms, Hogan and Hartson.
Esther Shop was known for its commitment to quality. The shop's motto was "We don't sell, we dress." Through the years, it dressed the children in the families of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, and it employed multilingual sales clerks to help embassy shoppers.
When you signed on with the Esther Shop, you stayed. Ann Sennett, the Russian interpreter, was there 50 years, and Fannie Shapiro for 37 years. Floyd Williams started when he got out of the Army, and he has greeted customers in a smart cap embroidered with the Esther Shop name for 42 years.
And the Esther Shop offered more than merchandise. "New mothers were always coming in asking, 'What do I need?' " said Bigio, who joined the business in 1960. "We'd teach them how to make a bed and how to toilet-train."
Melva Abraham's children wore Esther Shop clothes in the '40s and '50s. "I hate to see it go," Abraham said. "It's the passing of an era."
Ann Brownlee went to the shop a few days before its closing to pick up clothes for her grandson. "My three children came up through here," she said. "I was looking forward to buying for my grandson, too."
In the shop's heyday, lavish window displays with neon lights and mannequins wearing fur-collared coats beckoned customers from the sidewalks. Now, the facade of the 116-year-old building sags, and its signs are rusted and missing letters. Inside, however, are chandeliers and mahogany paneling acquired when the Esther Shop moved from 1227 F St. into the former Hahn's Shoe Shop at 1207 F St. in the '50s.
Soon the building will be demolished, along with the remaining four buildings in the 1200 block of F Street, for two office buildings planned by Buvermo Management in Arlington and Bethesda developer Nathan Landow. On the 13th and F corner, developer John Akridge Co. is preserving the facade of the Homer Building and putting up a 12-story office building behind it.
Yesterday, the racks were nearly bare; the only items left for sale were the fixtures. But Esther's children were still there. Their pictures crammed a bulletin board, and Bigio displayed handfuls more. "The kids come first," she said, flipping through shots of the same little boys getting bigger in Esther Shop suits.
Caption: floyd williams hugs fannie bigio on the esther shop's last day downtown.