After 63 years, Ida's is over. The last sale is on now, and when everything is gone, the doors will close forever. In lingerie, in ladies' dresses, in housewares, in accessories, behind all the counters in all the departments, upstairs in bookkeeping and alterations, downstairs in layaway and on the streets of the neighborhood, its passing is being mourned as a death in the family.
And that is as it should be, for Ida's began and now ends as a family saga, like so many others, but with a certain difference. Ida was the oldest of the seven Abraham children. In 1919, when her mother died and money got tight, she opened the little corner store where you could buy needles and thread and penny candy. One by one, the sisters and one brother entered the business, and soon Ida's was Ida and Rose and Ethel and Margie and Sidney, with Sidney as president. The shop on the corner at 5601 Georgia Ave. NW grew into a two-story department store that was still and always would be Ida's--a family store, a neighborhood landmark.
In the customers and employes there developed a fierce loyalty, and Ida's prospered, even when the shopping malls came and people left the city for the suburbs and other stores like it went out of business. Time passed, and Ida died, and then Rose and Sidney, until finally Ida's is down to one member of the family full time in the store--Sidney's son, Larry, who at age 39, is weary of life at Ida's. He wants something new, something more, not retailing, but running in the Boston Marathon, reading novels and going to movies and concerts, maybe becoming a missionary in Africa, maybe going to computer school and, finally, after all those Saturday evenings at the store, a wife and children.
"I was working here all my life," Larry Abraham--Mr. Larry to his employes and customers--said the other day as he took a seat in the shoe department, where the summer sandals were going fast. "My father worked very hard, very long hours, and I just assumed I'd help him. I graduated law school at GW in 1968, and I just came right into the business . . . I always put the store first. I could never delegate. I saw my father--he was always here--and I just did the same thing . . . In these 15 years I've worked 30 years."
He said he made up his mind to close Ida's when Morton's Department Store--also a family business, with five discount stores in the metropolitan area--agreed to lease the property for another Morton's and to hire as many of Ida's 36 employes as possible. Abraham still owns the building and the five-store shopping center across the street, just a seven-minute drive from the house on 26th Street NW where he grew up.
He lives in an apartment in Bethesda now, a 35-minute drive from Ida's. His store was open six days a week, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Abraham was always there, in his khaki pants, blazer, tie and oxford button-down shirt. He would buy series tickets at the Kennedy Center and then miss most of the events because something would come up--something was always coming up--at the store. He has a list of 30 novels to read, including "Sophie's Choice" and "Gorky Park," and an equally long list of movies to see. "I never even saw 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' " he said sheepishly. "I feel like I'm 21, just starting out," he said. "I have a lot of plans . . . My mother wants grandchildren."
Larry's brother Maury, a 27-year-old graduate philosophy student at Boston College, had two papers to write, one on Descartes, the other on Kant, but was nevertheless back at the store where he, too, had grown up. Maury, reflective and softspoken, never wanted to go into the business, and last week there were indications that his retailing instincts might have been better suited to a more trusting age. When a woman told him he had overcharged her by $10 but produced no receipt, he apologized and gave her the $10. He told the father of a little boy who had a funeral to attend to take a $20 suit and pay when he could. He assured another customer that he would hold a $225 lamp for her until she decided whether she wanted it.
Maury's and Larry's aunt Margie is not well. Their aunt Ethel is in her 70s and devoted to charity work. But as secretary-treasurer of the corporation, Ethel Baskin still came into the store several times a week. She was stunned when her nephew told her he wanted to close. "She said to me, 'What am I going to do?' " Abraham said. "I told her she'd have more time for her charities and her hobbies and traveling." The day after the sale started--May 20--Miss Ethel, as she is known at the store, left for Europe.
One of Abraham's customers, Viola Gibson, who had come to buy a lamp and coffee table on sale, sat beside him in the shoe department and began to reminisce. "I'll be 60 in October, and I've been coming up here since I was a little girl. My mother used to send me up here for ribbons for my hair and stockings for her for church. They always made you feel like you were a part of the family. They always asked about my mother, and they always knew the right shade and right size stockings--size 8 1/2 Queen Anne lace, tan or black. My great-grandmother would come up on Saturdays after work. They knew her and my grandmother. I bought my four children clothes in here. And my grandchildren, I've got six. We go back five generations in Ida's. Losing them is like losing a part of your family."
Mrs. Gibson looked around in disbelief at the crowds and the bold blue-and-white signs she had never before seen in calm, sedate Ida's: "Must Liquidate $600,000 Inventory--To The Bare Walls! Up To 50% Off. Every Item In Our Store Sacrificed In This Once-In-A-Lifetime Sale!!" She shook her head. "I just took it for granted it would always be here."
All week long, it was like that, as the coats and dresses disappeared from the metal racks, and the shirts and pantyhose from the wooden bins, and the coffee pots and greeting cards from the wooden shelves--and the once seemingly inexhaustible supply of all the things you knew you could always find at Ida's rapidly dwindled. The customers remembered the store as a place where, though styles came and went with the years, though the neighborhood changed, the important things about Ida's never changed.
Someone from the family was always there to greet you, more often than not by name. The salesladies knew your name, too, and your size and your favorite color. Ida's had all the name brands--London Fog, Leslie Fay, Haggar, Kay Windsor, Career Club, Olga, Hanes--but it wasn't fancy. There were clothes for fat people and skinny people and old people and children.
In lingerie, Miss Dale, who had been taught by Miss Ida herself, went into the dressing room with you to make certain your bras and girdles fit right. Ida's carried things that no one else had--Lee/Rowan-brand swing-down-over-the-door hangers in housewares, Mayer stockings in lingerie, Girl Scout and Boy Scout uniforms in children's. And if you needed something but didn't have cash on hand, you could always get credit. Gift-wrapping, alterations and delivery remained free, even when all the other stores had long since started charging for such services.
"I was afraid to change," Abraham said. "I thought if I did they'd all go someplace else."
For 30 years Justine Moore has shopped in his family's store, and she was in ladies dresses last week, making her final purchases. "Whenever I moved, " she said, "the first thing I always asked was, 'How far am I moving from Ida's? Where's Ida's?' " She lives four blocks from the store with the blue-and-white awnings now; the farthest she has ever lived is six blocks.
Back to greet Mrs. Moore last week was the legendary Miss Bee--Bee Stansbury, 28 years in ladies dresses--who retired reluctantly last year at age 77, after a stroke, but returned to help with the final sale.
"This was one of the greatest stores around. I'm heartbroken," she said. "I was 18 when I first started coming here. I was friends with Rose, and I used to come here to help her in the jewelry and bags department. In 1954 I decided to give up millinery and come over here . . . I loved the store, I loved the people, I loved the girls. Everything in here was hand-picked by me. It was an inspiration when people would say, 'Oh, Bee, I love this,' or 'Oh, Bee, no one else has this.' "
Her trademark was her blond beehive hairstyle and her red nail polish with the white 'B' on her right ring finger and the white daisy on her middle finger. Her manicure is still the same, but the beehive hairdo is gone. Miss Bee has short hair now, not by choice. "After the stroke, I couldn't reach up to fix it anymore," she explained. "When I was in the hospital, they sent me robes, gowns, flowers. They kept paying my salary, and they paid it until I refused it. Everytime I come in the store, Mr. Larry says, 'Miss Bee, do you need a check?' And I say, 'No, I don't need anything.' "
From a small green file-card box on the counter, she pulled out the newspaper clippings she had saved over the years: Ida's obituary, Rose's obituary, Sidney's obituary, a story from the old Washington Star headlined, "How a Small Department Store Survives in Neighborhood Setting."
"I've seen them all pass. Except for Ethel and Margie. They gave me a good living all my life . . . My husband's gone 14 years. I had eight brothers and sisters, and they've all passed. I'm the only one living . . . I gave my whole life right here."
For the people who worked there, Ida's was a place to belong. The salaries were not high--they ranged from $8,000 to $20,000--but everyone who had worked more than 1,000 hours got a share of the profits and everyone from Mr. Larry and Miss Ethel and Miss Bee on down, was addressed as Mr. or Miss: Miss Alberta, Miss Helen and Miss Mildred in dresses; Miss Dale, Miss Lorraine and Miss Angie in lingerie; Miss Vernice, Miss Viola, and Miss Amanda in children's, Miss Annie and Miss Diane in women's accessories; Mr. Stanley, Mr. Earrold, Mr. Moses and Mr. Kamara in menswear; Miss Claire and Miss Helen in shoes; Miss Daisy, Miss Winifred, Miss Annie and Miss Betty in housewares; Miss Iva Lee, Miss Evelyn, Miss Lena, Miss Willie, Miss Coye, Miss Josephine, Miss Marlene, Miss Nina, Miss Florence, Miss Althea, and Miss Del in clerical, Mr. Halpert in display; Mr. Eddie in engineering, Miss Evana and Miss Janice in alterations.
Down in the basement, in housewares, Daisy Phillips, who started at Ida's as a maid 28 years ago and worked her way up to buyer, losing a jealous husband in the process, could hardly keep from crying as she walked among the half-empty racks and shelves. In her patchwork printed cotton smock, she surveyed the large room that had once been filled with the things that she had so carefully chosen, dishes, luggage, TV stands, blenders, toasters, teapots, mousetraps, Halloween costumes, sleds, stuffed animals. "I bought all this," she said. "All the beautiful wine sets . . . The lamps were always my favorite . . . I like high-style lamps with crushed velvet lampshades and prisms."
And there in the middle of the department was one of Miss Daisy's lamps--with a golden crushed velvet lampshade and deep red prisms that shone under the overhead fluorescent lighting. "I've been the housewares buyer for 12 years," Miss Daisy, 58, said. "This was my love, this was where I started. This is where I belong. I don't know if I could feel at ease anywhere else." She said she plans to move back to North Carolina--the place she left in the 1940s to come to Washington--and get married again.
In 1958, five years after Miss Daisy came to Ida's, Willie Satterfield arrived, a shy woman whose only job experience was at a cotton mill in her native North Carolina. "I looked for a lot of jobs, but I couldn't get one," she said upstairs in the office where she keeps the books. "I wanted to be a receptionist or a clerk--something where you didn't have to do much thinking. I'd only gone by Ida's on the streetcar, and finally I came in and applied for a job. Something told me that this is where I was supposed to be. They called me that night and told me I had the job."
She started in layaway, went to the switchboard for seven years and then to bookkeeping. Four years ago she got her own office, with a Miss Willie nameplate on the metal desk, a gold brocade shower curtain for a door and, on the walls, oil landscapes that Miss Ethel herself had painted. "I was thrilled," she said.
In 1976 Miss Willie's husband, then the head chef at Tastee's Diner in Silver Spring, was home alone and opened the door to two strangers, who beat him brutally and ransacked the apartment. He suffered permanent brain damage as a result. For 18 months, while Miss Willie stayed home to care for her husband, Larry Abraham brought her the books from Ida's so she could keep working. "People here gave donations, they encouraged me," she said. Miss Willie is 63 now, her husband 76, and in a nursing home, having never regained his health.
As Miss Willie and her coworkers closed out the books last week, they remembered how Mr. Sidney, and then Mr. Larry, were always so eager to please the customers. "One time a lady called Miss Bee up in desperation," Miss Willie said. "She had to make a plane in two hours, and she needed a coat and some dresses. Mr. Sidney got two coats--one plain and one fur--and drove over there himself and waited while she tried them on." She delivered the ending of the story as if it were a lesson from some Bible of business: "She took both coats and several dresses."
Down the hall from Miss Willie, her good friend Evana Popovic, from Yugoslavia, remembered 26 years in alterations. "My teacher at Americanization school sent me. The minute I came here, they took me. When I shortened my first coat, they showed it all over the store." She said Raleigh's once offered her a job, but she preferred to stay at Ida's, in the small two-room office with the sewing machines in front of each of two windows overlooking the corner of Georgia Avenue and Longfellow Street. "I have my window here," she said, pointing. "And I have my window here. I have my air-conditioning. I saw the trees. I opened the windows. I heard the traffic . . . It's my place."
Downstairs in lingerie, one of the younger employes--Dale Perrow, who came to Ida's 16 years ago, when she was 23--remembered her first buying trip to New York. "I was alone. I was young and shaky. But I had the addresses, and I found my way around." Miss Dale started in lingerie and stayed there. "I love lingerie," she said. "Women, once you get around 35, most of us get humps and bumps, and you like to smooth them out. They put their blouse and pants on and look in the mirror and say, 'Just look at me!' "
Ida's averaged $1.5 million in retail sales each year, Larry Abraham said. Sales had dropped slightly in the last six or seven years, as they had at many city stores, and had Ida's remained open, Abraham would have instituted some changes--advertising, for example, which the store had never done. "We could have been on this corner forever," he said. And though he looks forward to his new life, the nephew of Ida, who started it all, is not without his doubts. "Sometimes I feel like my father's up there shaking his finger at me."
By the weekend, more than 70 percent of the merchandise had been sold.