As she has for as long as she can remember, Judith Macaluso, a D.C. superior court judge, went for coffee Saturday at Heller’s Bakery in Mount Pleasant, waiting on line as she savored the sweet smell of doughnuts and apple turnovers.
But what was this? she asked. A barren display case where there should have been an assortment of cookies?
“I’ve never seen it empty,” the judge said to the man behind the counter, who told her something she never expected to hear: more than 80 years after it was opened by German immigrants, Heller’s Bakery was shutting down.
“No!” the judge said. “I’m stricken. Oh, man! Oh, Lord!”
Behind her, a sense of melancholy pervaded the crowd of patrons, suggesting that more was being lost than a place to buy cinnamon buns. Elizabeth Posner, 35, struggled to compose herself as she recalled a first date over a bagel at Heller’s five years ago with the man who became her husband.
“This place is part of our story,” she said. “So sad.”
A city often is defined by its skyline, the iconic towers, historic building and monuments becoming postcards exported to the world. But a city also is distinguished by its neighborhoods, the local proprietors and shops becoming their own kind of familiar landmarks in the hurley-burley of daily life.
In Washington, Eastern Market’s meat and vegetable vendors create that kind of place on Capitol Hill; Ben’s Chili Bowl and its half-smokes is that place on U Street; Player’s Lounge, a longtime favorite of Marion Barry when he was alive, is where people gather for lunch and dinner in Southeast.
In Mount Pleasant, a neighborhood of handsome brick rowhouses just off 16th Street NW, Heller’s Bakery has existed since around the time Calvin Coolidge was leaving the White House and Herbert Hoover was taking over.
Five owners have presided at Heller’s since then, the last being Aleks Duni and his brother, Lambros, who bought the shop 10 years ago.
“It’s like losing a baby,” Aleks Duni said of his business’s death, as he stood behind the counter on Saturday.
His pastries, he said, didn’t draw enough customers to keep up with expenses, including the $7,500-a-month rent that would have gone up if his landlord had not declined to renew his lease. “We fell behind because we didn’t make money. People didn’t come,” he said. “If I was the landlord, I’d probably do the same.”
Jean Lujan, the building’s owner, knows the rigors of the bakery business, herself having owned Heller’s for more than a decade at one point.
“I like them and, in many ways, they’re fine tenants,” she said of the Duni brothers. “But I didn’t want to be struggling for the rent. A bakery is a very hard business to run. I’m not sure there’s room for that kind of place anymore.”
On the side of the building that houses the shop on Mount Pleasant Street is a two-story mural that itself has become a neighborhood landmark.
“Heller’s Bakery est. 1928,” it reads. “Pies, Rolls, Cakes, Homemade Ice Cream.”
A new tenant may want to change the mural, Lujan said, “and I wouldn’t balk, although I don’t know if the neighborhood would balk.”
The visitors who came for a last nibble Saturday included Elizabeth Heller Sweet, a retired nurse, whose father, Ludwig Heller, a German immigrant, started the business. Cupcakes, birthday cakes and multi-tiered wedding cakes were among Heller’s offerings in those years.
“It smelled heavenly,” Sweet said, sitting inside Heller’s for a last time, with her daughter and a cluster of grandchildren who came to take pictures in front of the sign. Her brother, Greg, 72, was on his way.
At one point, Heller’s employed 50 people, owned delivery trucks, and had half a dozen stands around the city. Sweet helped out in the shop, boxing cakes and pastries. Her four brothers, she said, scrubbed pots and pans, which she said may explain why none wanted to take over the business.
“We all knew how much work it was,” she said. “My father worked seven days a week.”
In those years, Heller’s was an over-the-counter businesses. After Ludwig sold in the 1980s, subsequent owners kept his name on the sign, but added tables, then WiFi, then a “Community News” bulletin board, which, as of Saturday, included a notice that read, “Nanny Available.”
A few feet away was a 25-cent gumball machine. On the wall was a display of 10 pieces of artwork made by students from Sacred Heart School.
“It’s a pillar of this neighborhood,” said Bob Davis, 63, an accountant who suspects that his clients visit his office because they can duck into Heller’s afterward.
“I’m not sure I should tell them they’re closing,” he said.
Madeline Svendson, 62, a teacher who lives in Silver Spring, made a last trip for the pastries.
“I don’t eat a lot of doughnuts, but I like theirs,” she said.
As she approached the register, the man behind the counter said they had run out of cake doughnuts. She stepped away. If she had to, she said, she was more than willing to wait for another batch.