On the day the Hecht Co. opened its Silver Spring branch 40 years ago, the governor of Maryland, the president of the state Senate and top Montgomery County officials were there to praise what was then a unique institution here: a full-fledged suburban department store. The event warranted live television and radio coverage.
But these days -- in the waning, threadbare hours of a store that once sold everything from parakeets to refrigerators and anchored a thriving commercial district -- there is only a scattering of diehard shoppers on hand to bid it farewell.
Company officials are planning to close the store as soon as the sale merchandise is gone, and to move to a new facility in Wheaton Plaza next month.
As Hecht's moves out, uncertainty is moving in to the surrounding streets, where some local merchants are planning to follow the chain farther out in the suburbs. Other nearby business owners, uneasy about their place in the planned redevelopment of Silver Spring, said they also are not sure they will be able to last there.
Longtime customers of Hecht's, including retired and moderate-income residents of the surrounding area, said they were sorry over the loss of such a convenient store. In the gloom of near-empty floors in the old Hecht's building, shoppers were drifting this week amongst dwindling piles of sheets and slacks and racks of leftover budget store items that have been trucked in from other Hecht branches for a closing sale.
With an eye to the demographics of the surrounding area, the Silver Spring department store was the last of the Hecht's chain to feature low-cost budget merchandise.
"We don't find that the better customer is shopping in Silver Spring," Hecht's regional Vice President Jack Boonshaft said. "She seems to have migrated further out in the suburbs."
Hecht's is following those customers and tailoring its merchandising to them, in a move next month from Silver Spring to a new white and blue-gray brick building a 10-minute drive to the north.
The old store, considered historic because of its place in Silver Spring's commercial lore and the Art Deco-style touches on its exterior, has been sold to a developer who plans to convert it into a retail mall.
"Every day we're having people tell us that they're upset about the closing," said veteran lingerie saleswoman Catherine Aluise, who went in to shop for a dress 36 years ago, ended up applying for a part-time Christmas sales job, and has worked there ever since. "I feel really bad about it. I've spent more time here than I did at home."
The store's 200 employes will be transferred to other branches, with 70 moving to the new Wheaton Plaza store.
The closing of Hecht's is an ominous event for some neighboring merchants, they said, because it leaves Silver Spring's aging commercial core without a main attraction and marks the beginning of a long and disruptive period of reconstruction for that block of Colesville Road near Georgia Avenue.
Another traditional mainstay of Silver Spring, the small J.C. Penney's department store across the street, plans to stay put, its manager said. But some of the merchants along Colesville Road said they were not as sure.
They plan to take the pulse of their businesses when the Christmas season is over, they said, but noted that their customers are already calling to find out if they, too, have closed.
The stores may have to close eventually, the owners said, because they doubt that they will be able to afford rents in a redeveloped downtown. "I'd love to stay in Silver Spring as long as possible," said Jon Lee, who opened the Esquire Clothiers shop on Colesville Road 16 years ago. But he is now making plans to move with Hecht's to Wheaton Plaza.
"I can't wait four or five years for it to redevelop . . . . Usually when there is construction going on, people won't come," he said.
"Even a gentrified community can't support the kind of rent base" the redevelopment is expected to bring, said Matthew Holtzman, owner of Wall Street Clothes on Colesville Road.
"We may have to leave the community," said Holtzman. "We'll probably end up opening in Germantown, Frederick -- somewhere where I can still afford to go into a development . . . . "
In the meantime, customers of Hecht's who live nearby said they would reluctantly take their patronage to Wheaton Plaza.
"I've been coming here every day since the sale began," said Silver Spring resident Florence Lawranson, a retired life insurance company employe. "I certainly will miss Hecht's. I think a lot of retired people won't go to Wheaton Plaza as often."
When the Silver Spring store will actually close its doors was a matter of speculation this week. Many clerks were telling shoppers that it would be today, when the store is staying open until 11 p.m., long past its normal closing.
But store administrators pledged to stay open as long as there was something for customers to buy.