The empty shelves inside Hechinger in Gaithersburg yesterday mirrored the blank parking lot outside. Save for the occasional shopper pulling in, a ballgame could have been amply accommodated.
Four traffic-choked miles to the south, the double-level garage at Home Depot was as packed as the long-term lot at Dulles the Friday before Christmas. Inside, the public address system crackled with activity. Saws whirred. Shopping carts clattered down aisles bearing door knobs, tools, begonias -- enough products to erect a town from scratch.
Taken together, the two hardware kingdoms -- one forlorn, the other teeming with business -- concisely suggest why Hechinger, a Washington institution that grew with the city, has seen its balance sheets turn red.
The company filed for bankruptcy protection Friday, announcing plans to shutter 89 stores, including the one in Gaithersburg. Hechinger's scale and ubiquity once did in many mom-and-pop operations, but the new wave of competition has taken enormity to a different level. Faced with the spread of big "box" stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot, Hechinger found it tough to compete.
As a handful of shoppers examined a sprinkling of goods outside the Gaithersburg store yesterday -- 10 green plastic lawn chairs in a case that could hold hundreds -- some spoke sentimentally about a business that, locally, has been as recognizable as Woolworth's.
"It's the store of my neighborhood," said Mercedes Ramirez, who was buying flowers for her Montgomery Village town house. "Everybody's sad about this."
But many said Hechinger had been done in by its own hand. Where the company once was known for helpful service, some now know it for no service at all.
"You can wait in the line, and they've got 20 people waiting and only two registers open," complained Stanley Ware, who runs a construction company. "Now they've got three open, and nobody's here. Too little, too late."
"This is always the last resort," proclaimed Elwood McMullen, a remodeling consultant from Olney, emerging from Hechinger without the sprinkler timer he sought, having already tried two other stores. "Home Depot is more set up for contractors."
Even loyal shoppers conceded that Hechinger's selection pales in comparison to the veritable airplane hangar's worth of stuff at Home Depot, so much stuff that some shrink in horror.
"Home Depot? Overwhelming," said Lenore Mastroianni, who was picking up herbs for her garden at Hechinger. "It's just really, really large. It's not familiar. I guess it will become familiar."
She searched for basil. A tray of tomato plants waved in the breeze. Rosemary, yes. No basil.
"That's the only herb I plant," Mastroianni sighed. "This is part of the problem." This year, oregano. She carried the plant inside. A bored cashier stood alone enveloped by piped-in music.
A man who identified himself as a Hechinger manager but refused to provide his name would not comment on the state of the store's service. Hechinger has, in the past, acknowledged problems with staffing and merchandise shortages.
For many Washingtonians, shopping at warehouse-sized retailers proliferating in the suburbs is an abandonment of tradition. Stan Torchin, 58, a lifelong Washingtonian, recalled wandering through Hechinger on Georgia Avenue as a junior high school student, taking in the array of power tools. These days, Torchin lives in Rockville. Home Depot is his hardware store. He grew weary of fruitless trips to Hechinger.
"I'd go in there, and I didn't find any help," he said, offering a common refrain.
Torchin carried a broken window shade as he walked through the Home Depot entrance. More than two dozen varieties of lawn mower beckoned. Ten gas grills. Enough air conditioners to deliver winter. Where were the window shades?
"My wife can't stand to come here," Torchin said. "Too overwhelming."
A young woman in an orange apron pointed the way. A clerk recommended one shade for about $10, then cut it to size. Torchin was out the door in five minutes.
For Edward Haungas, a Home Depot sales clerk who has been at the Gaithersburg store since it opened six years ago, Hechinger's demise is another trophy. He used to work for Home Depot in Connecticut, where the company forced many hardware stores to become other businesses.
"We came down here with an attitude," Haungas said. "Our motto is, Gaithersburg needs another bowling alley."
But that attitude may not play well. Some customers say Home Depot began here with a great flood of service but has already ratcheted down.
"You get too big, you start to lose touch with what's really important," said Nick Beyer, who was picking up lumber. "Somebody else is going to come along and pick up the slack."