On the corner at the center of a battle for the District’s spirit, it’s back to business as usual.
A DJ turned up an old-school beat as hospital workers, commuters and construction workers grooved on the sidewalk. Customers heading into the electronics store at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW ducked and dodged their way inside.
“We’re on the block, baby. Watch out for good people having a good time,” said Ricardo Scott, also known as DJ Dirty Rico, his voice booming through speakers. “If you’re not from around here — welcome to D.C.”
At Central Communications, business as usual is anything but ordinary.
The store, which sells cellphones and accessories from the front and go-go compact discs from a separate entrance around back, has been a neighborhood mainstay since 1995. But the area — and the District — is changing.
Central Communications has struggled to keep up, owner Donald Campbell said.
The Metro PCS vendor known for blasting go-go’s distinct percussive funk from a speaker is more than a cellphone store. Some call it a sanctuary. Others joke the store should rename itself the “Shaw community rec center.”
“This store operates even better than some rec centers,” Scott said after his two-hour set. “It’s on the corner, in the heart of whatever’s going on around here. And yeah, it’s a cellphone store, but it’s also one of the biggest staples of this community.”
Rent has skyrocketed as the CD business has slowed. Many of the new arrivals are millennials who prefer shopping online to making small talk at the corner store.
Campbell said no residents of The Shay, a nearby luxury apartment complex, approached him to discuss the shop’s daily dose of go-go before lodging noise complaints with the city and, eventually, T-Mobile, the parent company of Metro PCS.
“I don’t think they really waited to see what we’re about over here. They just judged us on the music,” said Campbell, 52. “I wish they would have come and talked to me.”
After the music was silenced, there were protests, hashtags and cars parked outside The Shay at night, blasting go-go toward the building’s entrance. (The Shay has said one resident’s complaint is not reflective of the building’s other residents or its management).
District officials issued public statements and wrote letters to T-Mobile executives. Washingtonians threatened to boycott if the music was not restored.
On Wednesday, T-Mobile chief executive John Legere announced on Twitter “the music should NOT stop in D.C.!” And the music returned.
A celebration is planned for Saturday, with live go-go performances and the “biggest go-go picture ever taken,” Campbell said. It will feel like the old days, he said — if only for an afternoon.
As he moved from the front of the store to the back on Thursday, Campbell called T-Mobile to order swag for the event. He is a visible presence at his store, staffing the front desk and keeping the CD operation alive.
Over the past week, longtime residents say he has also become a symbol — a face of D.C. culture as gentrification and a changing population morph its very identity.
Campbell does not think of himself that way. He prefers dealing with customers than cameras and is quick to offer recommendations on cellphone cases or the latest go-go CD release.
He is also working to create an online streaming service for go-go music he hopes will reach “people worldwide,” not just his loyal base of D.C. customers.
Some patrons have been coming to his shop since it dealt in beepers and cassette tapes. He has seen them grow up. He has seen their kids grow up. If a regular is short on a bill, Campbell said he gives them a break. If employees need time off to take care of their health or kids, Campbell holds their spot until they return.
“When people are struggling, I try to help them out,” he said. “So, I guess when people saw I was struggling, they stepped up to help me out.”
As he spoke, a homeless man who spends his days on the corner outside shuffled past bins and rows of CDs to use the bathroom. He nodded at Campbell.
“What’s up, big boss?”
“Yeah, I guess we’re kind of unique,” Campbell said. “A different kind of cellphone store.”
Campbell began his entrepreneurial streak in the club business in the 1990s. He opened Club Hollywood on Ninth Street NW, where the popular DC9 nightclub now stands.
Go-go, a distinctly D.C. blend of funk, Afro-Latin beats and hip-hop, was everywhere in the 1990s. Campbell became a fan, collecting releases from live shows at his club and others.
A few years later, when he sold the club and opened Central Communications, Campbell decided to sell the recordings alongside pagers and other electronics. He began to play go-go out front — a decision that would define his business.
“The music is what drew me to the store,” said Hillerie Rodriguez, 37, who has worked at Central Communications for four years. “Before they even hired me, I used to sit in the front and listen to the music. I feel blessed to be in this store, because it’s a family.”
Campbell described the area as “rough” when he opened the store, but looking at the intersection, he said, he saw potential. He decided to make it his own.
He threw block parties for the neighborhood and offered kids a safe place to congregate. The steady rhythm of music inspired dancing, not disputes, creating a peaceful bubble around the shop.
“When I say that this store is the heartbeat of the city, what I mean is the moment you hear this music, you relax — it brings comfort, peace,” said Julie Guyot, 47, who passes the store daily. “There’s no agitation on this side of the street. Everyone’s dancing, happy. And if you have a problem, or you feel panicked and you just need a minute, you can go inside this store and everyone in there will make it okay.”
Having the music off for a month hurt business, Campbell said. Some customers did not bother coming in — they thought the store was closed.
On Thursday, the regulars were back, paying their bills in cash at the counter, trying out new phones for an upgrade.
Two 10-year-old boys, Amani and Taye, bounced into the store asking for quarters for the gumball machine. They watched employee Mohamed Osman take apart a phone with a cracked screen and peppered him with questions as he worked.
An employee stepped out from behind the counter to straighten the collar of Taye’s denim jacket and offer the boys snacks from a stash behind the counter.
In the back, Campbell sat on a stool in front of a row of CDs when there was a knock at the door.
“What’s up, my man? You closed, man?” asked Juan Stewart.
“Nah,” Campbell said. “You know we’re always here.”