THE HECHINGER Co. that formally succumbed this week to today's world of hangar-sized home improvement arenas was not the home-grown chain that came to mean so much to so many in this region. The changing marketplace erased that special presence two years ago, when the family sold the company to a chain that would link up with another chain for an unsuccessful final run. What made Hechinger's popular in its day went beyond the then-impressive inventories that, decades ago, broadened the definition of hardware. The man of the house -- Harry Homeowner, who appeared in Hechinger ads for decades -- helped turn the chain into a community institution whose owners felt deeply about the city of their births.
Sidney Hechinger, who opened his first store at Sixth and C streets SW 88 years ago, developed the do-it-yourself market, relying, as most firms did then, on local talent for his work force. His son, John W. Hechinger, and son-in-law, Richard England, took over at his death, and from then until they sold out in 1997, they built up a chain that was to dominate the market without abandoning its ties to the capital area.
John Hechinger dived into community service with an extraordinary passion that today still has not waned. From the earliest times, he devoted his energies and growing resources to the District of Columbia's struggle for self-determination. His service on the boards of countless charitable and community development organizations was never the token-letterhead variety; he and Mr. England believed, in the best old-fashioned way, that their business owed its success to the people who were its customers, employees and its neighbors.
Mr. Hechinger served as chairman of the first presidentially appointed D.C. Council, pressing Congress at every opportunity to grant the city an elected local government and full representation in Congress. Mr. England established the chain as a serious equal opportunity employer well before many other retailers recognized the justice and good business sense of doing so.
The Hechinger stores sprang up not only in the most affluent parts of Washington and suburbs but also in neighborhoods that lacked retail services. The Hechinger Mall in Northeast drew other businesses to the neighborhood and hired neighbors as staffers and managers.
The rapid expansion of the chain into other states could not help diluting the local ties customers felt, and then the failure to find a market answer to the giant chains did in the business. Now shoppers in many parts of the District will have to look to the suburbs for major hardware needs. And people throughout the region will sense the loss of a business that equated home improvement with community improvement.