"Years ago there wasn't an item that a person desired that you couldn't buy on this street," said the embittered owner of a 55-year old business on H Street NE as he looked across the street at one of the D.C. government's vacant lost.
"H Street was one of the finest shopping streets in the entire area," he said, remembering when National Shirt, Kay Jewelers, Ourisman Chevrolet and Morton's Department Store were his neighbors. Shoppers clogged the sidewalks on the weekends.
That was before the decline of the 1960s, capped by the 1968 riots that left much of the street in ruins.
"I took a long walk a couple of months ago and I got back as quickly as I could because it made me sick . . . There's nobody on the streets now except the bums," he said.
This white businessman, who didn't want to be identified, made it through the riots that brought burned stores and death to H Street in April 1968, but he moved from a store with an open interior four years ago because vandalism and pilferage had become intolerable. Now, from behind a counter where he can control all his stock, he said, "If I'd been smart I would have taken what I had and ran."
But the fact is he didn't run. He has a 20-year-old son who is the third generation in the business and they're sticking it out.
George Boxley is a black businessman who bought his furniture store at 1353 H Street in a distress sale for half what it was worth. The former owner was shot to death during the riot as he chased teen-aged looters from the store. Since then, in 1974, one of Boxley's employes died after robbers shot him five times.
Boxley takes this violence matter-of-factly. For security's sake, he has arranged his narrow store so that a single aisle leads from front to back. His desk is on a high platform so he can look down on all who come in. A would-be robber will find it difficult to hide. Furniture is piled to the ceiling and Boxley said an assailant would be caught in a crossfire in that exposed aisle.
"The business is here if you can survive," said Boxley, speaking more of his sales technique than of the store's violent past. As he speaks a woman and her child walk in, looking for a roll-away bed he has advertised on sale at $79. She checks with her husband, who weems reluctant to shop. He says he bed is too expensive. Boxley offers it for $74 and the man counters with $59. Boxley rejects the price with a friendly laugh. After the family leaves, he said he would have dropped the price to $70.
"They'll come back," Boxley said. "The thing we do is try to sell again and again. That customer will tell four or five people. It's worth it for the advertising."
Boxley admitted his annual gross has been declining - it's now about $150,000 - and he has mixed feelings about staying on H Street. He owns apartment buildings and houses in the area and feels he has a rapport with his tenants because he is not an absentee landlord. He also owns his furniture store building, so he tempers inflation by absorbing increases in his stock prices. But that can't go on forever.
Alfred W. Hughes is only half-sure about his next move, and he has to move. Hughes has been with Felser-Scott Shoes at 9th and H Streets for 38 years, working up from window dresser to deliveryman to manager.
Felser's is the last standing building on the lot between 8th and 10th Streets where the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development is planning its most ambitious H Street residential and commercial project, a $6.5 million building for which the agency hopes to break ground in June.
The H Street Felser store is all that is left of a chain that once included 39 stores, Hughes said. And now it also is leaving H Street and the neighborhood customers who are accustomed to shopping in it. "Some of (my customers) knew me when I was on the truck," Hughes said.
Hughes watched over the store, peering out at the street from windows plastered with "Moving Sale" ssigns, several weeks ago. Hughes had not reordered for months, anticipating the day the store will move. Felser's will be a part of Ida's Department Store on Georgia Avenue.
Not everyone is pessimistic about H Street. John Dye, vice president of George's Place, a men's clothing store at 1001 H Street NE is street-wise and optimistic.
"You can never go back to the way things used to be," he said, "but these (shoppers) are reliable people and they're spending money every day." CAPTION: Picture, Boxley in front of his store.