Two hours after the official opening of Hecht's long-awaited new downtown store yesterday, fire department inspectors ordered the doors closed for 15 minutes because the building was overflowing with thousands of shoppers.
When the doors reopened, employes would allow new shoppers to enter only as other shoppers exited. By 3 p.m., Kenneth Winfield, a Hecht's senior vice president, estimated that 35,000 people had visited the store.
People staggered out the main G Street entrance clutching buys close to their chests with a wild look in their eyes.
"This is worse than Christmas," one woman said.
"Man, it's crazy in there," a man leaving warned an incoming shopper.
Some customers had come to search for special bargains, but most seemed to come out of curiosity to see the latest sign that the revitalization of downtown Washington was well under way.
The 275,000 square-foot, $40 million structure, which spans G Street NW from 12th to 13th Street, is billed by Hecht's officials as "the largest free-standing downtown department store built in America since the 1940s."
Shortly after 10 a.m., Mayor Marion Barry, flanked by Hecht's executives, store developer Oliver T. Carr and Metro General Manager Carmen E. Turner, snipped the gold ribbon at the marble and granite store that features five floors of merchandise atop Metro Center, one of the city's busiest subway stations. The store has entrances directly from the station.
The old Hecht's store at Seventh and F Streets NW closed Saturday, marking the end of an era when Seventh Street was the city's main retail district with three major department stores. The other two closed in the mid 1970s.
Hecht's weathered the competition from suburban malls, and yesterday the company was applauded by Barry and other officials for staying downtown. The new store is "another example of successful public-private partnership," Barry said.
D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy encouraged the hundreds who gathered for the ribbon-cutting ceremony to "do what I'm going to do and go in here and buy this place out today!"
There was roaring laughter, and then the mad rush was on.
"I ain't got no money, but I got good credit and I'm gonna charge everything," said 64-year-old Mary Barksdale.
"Of course I'm going to buy something," said her friend Lottie Cooper, 61. "I didn't come here to just look."
At one point, an employe handing out free shopping bags was cornered behind one of the stately ficus trees at the main entrance by people waving their hands and screaming for freebies. "Okay, okay. No more bags!" the man yelled.
In the new junior department, teen-agers watched a Prince concert playing on the 15 television screens set around the room.
Shoppers looking at bargains found upscale deals, including "14 kt. gold hoop earrings, regularly $100 -- $39.99; 50 percent off entire stock of diamond jewelry; fabulous mink coats, originally $4,699 -- $1,599."
"This is my first opening and I came because I'm so happy to have a store located downtown," said Gloria Corvitt. "I used to shop at the old Hecht's and I felt at loss when Lansburgh's and Kann's closed.
"I hate having to get in my car and drive to those malls," Corvitt said. "I feel much better now."